Both/And Leadership

Jeffrey Bolognese
Aug 27, 2016 · 7 min read

A colleague stopped by my office recently with a dilemma. Sue is a lead engineer for a project that’s just starting to ramp up. Right now she and just one other engineer, Karen, working on the project, but more engineers will be needed before the end of the year.

Karen is due to go on maternity leave soon. Sue needs to bring on a new engineer to replace Karen, and she has two equally qualified candidates: Derek and Robin. Unfortunately, right now, there isn’t enough work to fully occupy both of those candidates.

Should she pick Derek or Robin to fill the position? Sue’s dilemma is a pretty common decision that many of us face. We’re given a choice, and we need to pick one or the other. Someone will “win” and someone else will “lose.”

In the middle of agonizing over that discussion, Sue’s thought process shifted. She went from trying to decide which person to pick to contemplating how she could bring both engineers onto the team. It might be possible, Sue reasoned, to bring both Derek and Robin on at part time with the expectation that the work would continue to grow and be able to support both of them at full time in a few months. By the time Karen returned from maternity leave, there would be enough work to bring her back as well.

She may not have realized it at the time, but Sue moved from Either/Or decision making to Both/And.

Decisions, Decisions

As the example above illustrates, leaders have to make decisions. That’s pretty much one of their top two duties. The order being:

  1. Lead people
  2. Make decisions about leading people

All good leaders strive to make the best decisions possible. It’s a critical skill. So critical, in fact, that teaching us how to make good decisions is a huge industry with thousands of classes and books designed to make us better at that task: Critical decision making. Effective decision making. Creative decision making. Strategic decision making. However, in spite of all that support, our decision making frequently boils down to this simple methodology:

Either I choose “A” or I choose “B.”

This is “Either/Or” decision making. We’re all familiar with that kind of choice and how we see it applied in our careers and lives:

  • Either we do “A” or “B”
  • Either you have a successful career or a successful family
  • Either you’re for our proposal or you’re against it

I’m sure you can come up with many more examples, but you get the idea.

The Problem with “Either/Or”

While this may be our most common mode of making decisions, it does have some drawbacks. Certainly there are times when our decisions are truly limited to two choices, but many times Either/or decision making creates a false dichotomy that fosters unnecessary problems and conflict.

For example:

  • Either/or pits people and ideas against each other.
  • Either/or means there has to be a winner and a loser.
  • Either/or starts from a belief that resources must be limited (a “scarcity mindset”) even if they aren’t.
  • Either/or limits options and by doing so limits the true breadth of possibilities.

There is another option, though. Instead of the two choices offered by either/or, we have a third way; We can choose both/and.

The Power of “Both/And”

Both/and decision making starts with the possibility that there may be solutions that can encompass multiple options, not just one. We can have a solution that includes both “A” and “B”. If either/or thinking limits our options, a both/and approach to decision making expands possibilities. It suggests that our decision space is much larger than we may initially perceive. Both/and decision making also holds that there are solutions that can accommodate even seemingly contradictory beliefs. This is different than compromise, which usually means that all parties involved have to “give up” something. Both/and holds the possibility of a solution that’s bigger than the sum of it’s apparent choices.

The technical way to refer to a both/and mindset is to call it “non-dualistic thinking.” This philosophy is most commonly associated with Eastern religions such as Buddhism, but it has benefits when applied to other aspects of our daily lives, particularly decision making. To better understand the power of both/and thinking, consider this incredibly simplified example from the history of science:

Let There Be Light

Up until the beginning of the 20th century, science held an either/or understanding of the nature of light. Some scientists believed light was a particle because it demonstrated characteristics of a particle. Others said light must be a wave, because it demonstrated the characteristics of a wave. Experiments could be conducted that demonstrated either of those views. However, neither of those theories alone could fully explain the behavior of light. It took the radical notion that light could be both a wave and a particle for a more complete understanding.

That both/and view not only gave us insight into light, but opened up the study of quantum physics. And, of course, without quantum physics you wouldn’t have that computer or smart phone you’re using right now to read this fine article.

In that case, both/and thinking allowed for a change in our fundamental understanding of the universe. While most of our decisions don’t have such ramifications, when we apply both/and thinking to our decision making process, we open up many more possibilities.

The Advantages (and Challenges) of “Both/And”

You don’t have to be a quantum physicist to take advantage of both/and decision making. It’s a tool that can be utilized in many situations and has several advantages over an either/or thought process:

  • Both/and focuses on the big pictures goals that can accommodate multiple voices and opinions. It’s inclusive rather than exclusive.
  • Both/and doesn’t place artificial limits on our decision space.
  • Both/and starts without worrying about resource limitations: an “abundance mindset.”
  • Both/and can produce true “win/win” solutions.

Sounds great, right? So why are we still locked in an either/or decision mode? Because both/and solutions can take more work to reach than either/or.

As mentioned earlier, finding Both/and solutions isn’t necessarily compromise. It isn’t “having your cake and eating it, too,” or a way to appease multiple parties to avoid conflict. Identifying solutions that truly honor and include multiple ideas is almost always more difficult than just picking either/or. But with that greater challenge comes greater reward.

Leading with “Both/And”

Greater rewards sound good, and I know you’re up for the challenge. So how do you apply Both/and as a leader? Start with these three, simple steps:

  1. Start your decision making without worrying about limits: It’s human nature to think about what constrains our options when making decisions. For Both/And decision making, try starting decisions by imagining that you have no limitations. You may need to add constraints later, but it’s usually easier to add a constraint after the fact than to remove one you’ve already imposed upon yourself.
  2. Ask a question instead of making a statement: Statements can limit discussion while questions invite discussion. For example, from the earlier example instead starting with the thought, “I have to pick either Derek or Robin”, Sue could have begun by asking, “how can I bring both Derek and Robin onto my team?”
  3. Think about needs rather that strategies: This means thinking about the big picture rather than getting stuck in details (the “why” rather than the “how.”). Decisions are usually intended to address specific needs. When we start by thinking about specific strategies (the “how”) to address an issue, we can lose track of the bigger needs (the “why”) those strategies are trying to meet. Focus on needs and it’s easier to find the common ground that your strategies need to address.

Choose How to Decide

Leaders make decisions. While we may not be able to choose which decisions we have to make, we do have control over how we make those decisions. We can choose paths that limit our options or those that expand possibilities.

While contemplating the challenge of determining the nature of light, Einstein wrote: “We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.

As Einstein pointed out, choosing both/and can be challenging, but ultimately transformative. Our decisions as leaders may not alter our fundamental understanding of the nature of the Universe. But if you approach your decisions from a both/and mindset, you have the potential to at least change how you see your own world.

And once you’ve changed your own world, then you can change the Universe.

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