From Binary Thinking to a Third Way

A friend, exasperated and overworked, was telling me that there is absolutely no way to avoid working at night from Sunday through Thursday if he wants to keep his clients happy. A colleague was telling me that if she takes her proverbial foot off the gas then they won’t be able to afford the lifestyle they want to have. Another friend shared that she felt if she went back to work, she couldn’t be a good mom.

This or that. Zero-sum. Binary thinking.

I’ve heard stories like this time and again and I cringe every time. I see friends, clients and colleagues getting stuck in unhealthy, unproductive patterns stemming from old narratives and fear.

Let’s talk about where this comes from. One guess is our inner critic or the “voice of not-me” as characterized by Tara Mohr in her transformative book Playing Big.

Our inner critic is the voice inside of us that tries to keep us safe, often at the expense of our actualization. Its intentions are good, but its tactics can be incredibly damaging. The voice is usually rude and injects self-doubt at any chance. It is often irrational and can take the likeness from influential people in your life (your mother and father are some inner critic favorites!). It usually has a black-and-white way of approaching scenarios.

The inner critic voice often gets louder and harsher when we are on the verge of taking a leap or challenging convention.
When I hear the impact of the inner critic coming out in these stories, I see a tie to an old way of thinking or acting that has, in some way, been true in the past. We then create a narrative around it and hold it as an unshakable truth, when it might no longer be relevant, accurate or serving us in this current phase.

I spent most of my early career believing that the way I could get ahead was by working harder than anyone else. I built a reputation on being reliable and pretty much always saying yes to projects. My inner critic told me that I wasn’t smart enough to win on that alone, so long hours and hard work was my ticket to success.

This worked for quite some time and I had “data” that supported it – I was appreciated, respected and got those promotions I desired.

It wasn’t until I took my career completely off that track and pushed myself to work less, to set much stricter boundaries, and to re-analyze my priorities that I started to realize there was another way of doing things that might still result in the same – or possibly better – outcome.

Now, when I feel myself moving to a binary way of thinking or I see someone else doing it, I have a few tips that help expand my view and create space for new ways of approaching a problem.

Become more aware of when your inner critic is forcing you into a binary ‘this-or-that’ decision.

Name the narrative that is driving this thinking. I often like to use a phrase like, “the story I’m telling myself is [insert scenario].” This helps to separate yourself from the situation and train your brain not to be bound by the narrative.

Reverse the thinking. Say out loud what your inner critic is telling you. For example, “If I leave my job, I will not make money.” Then reverse the statement. In this example, it would be, “If I leave my job, I will make enough money.” Then give yourself three reasons why this new statement is just as true. You’ll be surprised at how much you have to support the positive statement.

Ask yourself, “What is a third option here that I’m not seeing?” Let yourself explore, brainstorm and expand your thinking without judgment. You can later weigh the benefits of the ideas but at least you’ve proven to yourself that there might be another way.

Find trusted, caring people who can help you identify when limiting beliefs might be holding you back from living your best life. These people will be able to spot it and communicate it with compassion.

Binary thinking feels comfortable and often easier than a world with many possibilities and complexities. At times it can help us be efficient and make decisions quickly. But too often it holds us back from seeing all of the rich opportunities around us to take control and make the best decision that supports our whole self.


Layla Kajer is Co-founder and managing partner of The Narrative House

Making Humanity a Leadership Priority

A few months after I had my daughter, I asked a female senior leader how she balanced family obligations with a demanding work schedule.

“Closely guard how much information you share with people at work when you take time out for family stuff,” she said. “Don’t let it look like being a mom is getting in the way of your job.”

I was so disheartened. Even in an apparently progressive and innovative company, parents with young children were being asked to pretend they don’t have lives and priorities outside of work.

In order to assimilate into the corporate culture we had to leave the most important parts of ourselves in the lobby. This created significant emotional and practical strain.

This is just one example of how employees suffer when an organization’s culture – its spoken and unspoken expectations and norms – demands homogeneity. Despite years of well-intentioned Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) programs and plenty of talk about bringing your whole self to work, companies are still haunted by bias and unreasonable expectations that limits the opportunities for employees who are challenging these cultural norms.

All of this leads me to ask two questions. First, does it matter? And, if so, how do we fix it?


Yes, inclusive culture should be a leadership priority

We all know employee engagement and culture are important to the bottom line. Gallup noted in a 2012 report that “Work units in the top quartile in employee engagement outperformed bottom-quartile units by 10% on customer ratings, 22% in profitability, and 21% in productivity.”

Our experience supports this. The most successful organizations that we’ve worked with have been led by executives who create a culture in which everyone feels like they are welcome – that they belong.

More specifically, those cultures all had common characteristics: openness, creativity and freedom from judgement.

When leaders consciously try to create an open culture, it results in a dynamic where people are free to speak up, to push back and challenge authority. Leaders who create cultures of openness foster curiosity, celebrate failure, and know that feedback and debate lead to better outcomes.

We’ve also seen leaders in every sphere, from banking to healthcare, succeed when they strive to foster a creative culture. Creativity is often seen as a defining trait of the marketing department, but we would argue that any team can approach their work creatively. When creativity is central to the culture, ideas for new and better ways of doing things are welcome, and everyone is empowered to bring fresh thinking to their work.

From our perspective, freedom from judgement is both the most important element to bring to a culture, and the hardest nut to crack. When we asked our clients to describe scenarios in which they couldn’t bring their full selves to work, the sense of being judged was central to every one of them. Employees felt their colleagues devalued them for having priorities outside of work; they felt pressure to wear certain clothing in order to fit in; they restrained their commentary in meetings so as to not rock the boat.

These are all fear-based actions. Famed shame researcher Brené Brown states, “the opposite of belonging is fitting in.” When we see employees going out of their way to fit in – rather than show up more fully – it’s a signal that they do not feel truly welcome as they are.

We describe cultures that are rich with openness, creativity and freedom from judgement as human cultures – places where anyone can collaborate and do their best work because they are, as author and Harvard professor Amy Edmondson puts it, “psychologically safe.”


Creating a more human-focused workplace

So how do we make humanity in the workplace more pervasive? D&I programs are often, unfortunately, spot solutions at best – knee-jerk responses to the latest cultural assessment or buzzworthy idea. Often they serve only to add more complexity into the system.

Clearly there are no easy answers, but we believe that organizations need to get back to the basics – to create a culture in which employees connect with each other on a deeply human level.

A good place to start is asking leaders to put humanity at the top of their list of desirable leadership characteristics. They have to walk the talk on this one. It is all about role modeling the behaviors you want to see in your culture.

Here are some ways that you can start:

Practice vulnerability by asking for feedback and admitting mistakes. That means taking down your armor and opening yourself up to connect authentically with your people.

Empathetically listen to your people. Ask for their input and care enough to really hear what they have to say.

Build connections with your people by taking time to get to know them, investing in team-building activities or creating flexibility and space in their workday to forge connections with each other.

Employ a learning mindset and curiosity, instead of blame and judgement, to better understand a situation and create psychological safety for your teams.

Small changes in the way you show up and how you respond to your employees will create a more welcoming, inclusive and productive workplace.

But beyond this, we believe that leaders who embrace humanity will be on the right side of history. When we look back ten or 20 years from now, we will celebrate the executives who succeeded by caring for their people on a deeply human level.


Layla Kajer is co-founder of The Narrative House | Email us to continue the conversation