Dangerous Dichotomies

One of the exciting aspects of work is its capacity to help us learn from others. That very opportunity can also be a hazard however, if the collective thinking of an organisation acts to stifle. Here’s an example…

A few years ago, I was involved as a judge in the Australian Customer Service Awards. On the evening of the Awards presentation, the keynote speaker was the then CEO of a State Education Department – a man who was committed to service.

To this man’s credit, he tried something very different in his presentation. He invited discussion amongst attendees. He did this by asking a question – one which stunned me.

He said, ‘Now I’d like to get some feedback from you. Could you consider who are the customers of schools – are students the customers, or are parents the customers?’

This was not a ‘trick’ question. Of course, the answer to this is that both parents and students are customers – and there are many other customer groups as well!

This CEO was a victim of ‘dichotomous thinking’ and it’s highly prevalent and dangerous.

Sometimes, dichotomous thinking disguises itself as ‘absolute thinking’, which is best explained by another experience I had with the senior people from a construction company.

During my work with them, I presented the concept of a ‘band of tolerance’ with regard to price. Essentially this says that if you are within the price ‘band of tolerance’, price doesn’t matter – quality, trust and reliability come to the fore.

The managers of the company revolted. They felt it was fine for other companies to think this way, but their customers were solely driven by price. They tendered for most jobs and price was the determining factor.

This represents thinking in ‘absolute terms’, which in a sense is dichotomous thinking – they were saying that:

Our customers are price driven…


they’re not our customers’.

This kind of thinking occurs in many organisations. How many times have you heard these kinds of comments:

    • ‘Our customers aren’t interested in quality’
    • ‘Our staff are not here for the long haul’
    • ‘Managers here are interested in rapid growth’

So what’s the point?

Dichotomies rarely exist in the real world. We have degrees of variation that normally prove absolute thinking to be simplistic and wrong. If you are thinking in dichotomies, then your thinking is probably wrong.

Of course, the trap of dichotomous thinking is that we interpret events in a way that supports our stance.

If we deal with a customer who argues about price, that event will act to confirm our view that customers are price-driven.

When we deal with a customer who is not price sensitive, we tend to discount that customer as an aberration.

It’s time to challenge dichotomous thinking!