Do you have an executive who sees everything in black and white? If you have someone on your team like this, you and your team probably experience tension as you seek to make decisions together.
This personality and their inability to work with the complex can slow down process and hold the organization hostage.
How can you spot a “black and white” thinker? And what can you do about it?
A few years ago, I was asked to work with an executive named Mark who was described as disruptive and divisive.
“Mark is one of those managers who was promoted because of his tenure,” his CEO Susan laughed. “I’ve inherited a basketful of talent on the team, and some conundrums. Mark is one of the latter. He actually impedes a lot of progress I think we could be making.”
“How does Mark impede the team’s progress?” I asked.
“Well, put it this way,” Susan responded, “everything is either white or black, good or bad, beautiful or ugly. There’s no in between with Mark. This means when we are faced with a complex problem (and when are problems not complex, these days?!), Mark will swing right or left and refuse to consider any perspectives in between.”
“That’s difficult,” I said. “The world presents a lot of challenges that live in the grey area.”
“No kidding,” Susan replied. “Especially in the business world. Volatility and complexity are the new normal.”
“I’m guessing that Mark has problems with relationships on the team, as well, then?” I prodded.
“Absolutely,” Susan answered. “When he takes a stance, he doesn’t consider the impact his decisions have on others.”
“It sounds like Mark suffers from polarized or “black and white” thinking. And it can certainly slow progress. So why are you calling me, now? It sounds like you’ve been limping along with this for the past three years.”
“You are right to ask,” Susan replied. “I should have done something about this long ago. Here’s what caused me to reach out to you: We have the opportunity to expand our market into South America, and this would really boost our ability to serve around the world. But Mark’s area is required to play a major role. His rigidity has caused us to come to a grinding halt with our negotiations. He can’t see how to compromise on things that don’t really matter, or to weigh other options besides his own option ‘A’ and option ‘B.’”
“In short, Mark is hurting the enterprise’s ability to grow,” I said.
“Yes,” Susan said. “And I hope we can salvage this deal with South America. It’s the chance of a lifetime for us.”
Susan agreed during our conversation that she would meet with Mark and share her desire for his growth, what she felt was standing in the way, and that she had hired an executive coach to support his development so that he could be even more effective.
Then, I met Mark.
“I’m not sure I need a coach,” he said. “There are two kinds of people in this world – those that can make things happen – and those who can’t. I’ve always made things happen. Look where I am,” he gestured around him. “I’m on the executive team. So, no problem, really.”
“Well, Mark,” I said, “I work with executives who have already experienced a good deal of success, and you fit that description.”
“Explain to me, again, then, why we are to work together,” he asked.
“It’s like this, Mark: picture that you are an Olympic athlete and you have already won that first gold medal. Can you see that?”
“Yes, Patti, I can imagine that,” Mark responded.
“So, picture that you want to go after that second gold medal. And in order to do so, you need to become stronger and even more agile in order to win it. With me so far?”
“Yes, I’m with you,” he said.
“Great,” I said. “Here’s the deal: what has served you thus far to get here will not get you where you need to go next. It’s as if there is a new edition of the textbook for leadership. We have more information. Information that will help you to remain relevant and able to meet new challenges.”
“Patti, I hear you,” Mark said. “I’m not sure I agree with the fact that we need to approach things differently, but evidently, my boss and the entire team think I need some help. And although I don’t see it, I’m willing to listen.”
“That’s all I ask, Mark,” I said. We shook hands and agreed to meet the following week.
As we began our work together, it was clear that he found it difficult to acknowledge shades of grey. He idealized or devalued relationships and situations depending on what was occurring at the moment with them. In other words, a colleague was either an angel or a demon. A situation was either all good or all bad. And these judgments shifted back and forth.
Mark used words like always, never, impossible, ruined, perfect. He saw his team members as not good enough, and it was difficult for him to receive any advice from others.
I touched base with Susan to alert her.
“Susan, shifting this mindset will require time and Mark’s commitment,” I said. “He has to understand that he has a challenge with his thinking in order to recognize the importance of working on it.”
“In that case, let’s move quickly on it – and I’ll tell Mark I will simply need to be the spokesperson for South American negotiations until further notice,” she answered.
And so our work began. I asked Mark to try and find the grey in at least one situation daily. And I also asked him to track his thoughts and notice when he used absolutes such as always, never, horrible, perfect, etc.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we worked on expanding his ability to take on different perspectives. I asked him to consider that choices may have more than two options, and to stretch to identify possible “third good options” in his decision-making.
Mark put his learning to work as he attended the regular executive team meetings. He was tasked to respond to ideas with questions first, and opinions later. Specifically, he was to use questions such as, “How might that work?” or “Tell me more,” and pausing to consider these for a few moments before responded with his own perspective.
Mark had some relationship-mending to do, and he needed to rebuild credibility with some key stakeholders both inside and outside the organization. As we worked on this bridging, he paused one day to remark, “You know, Patti, I realized something today. I have carried so much stress from trying to be perfect. And I’m not. No one is. Neither am I a demon – and neither is anyone else. I’m feeling more relaxed living in an imperfect world with good people.”
“I think you are on your way, Mark,” I smiled.
Susan and the rest of the team concurred. Mark received great feedback from them in several instances, and he began to be included in greater and deeper conversations with them.
It’s wonderful to stay in touch with clients long after we have completed our work, and to follow how the company is doing. I’m happy to report that today, Mark carries the title of CEO for the same company where we worked together. When Susan announced her retirement, the board and Mark’s colleagues concluded that there was no one better suited than he.
© Patti Cotton and patticotton.com. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that attribution is made to Patti Cotton and patticotton.com, with links thereto.
Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.