Fight or flight? This way or that way? Yes or no?
Each of these three questions describes a brain under pressure. Could be your brain, could be mine. When it comes to pressure situations, we all tend to default to the same mode: a binary mode.
In other words, when we're under pressure and need to make a decision, we all have a tendency to simplify the situation to two choices, and two choices only. We're actually hard-wired to do this, and for good reason.
Think back to when you were a caveman or cavewoman. And if you're too young for that, think back to when your parents were cavepeople. In those days, the typical high-pressure situation involved a saber-toothed tiger, so we'll go with that.
So the situation is this: you're being charged by a saber-toothed tiger. At this point, your brain becomes a binary machine: do I try to run away, or do I stay and fight? That's it. No other options. There's no time to think, "Wait a minute – what if I were to build some sort of rudimentary trap, capture this tiger, domesticate her, name her Lollipop, and feed her two tins of tuna a day …" You'd be tiger food before you finished the word "rudimentary."
That's why we're hard-wired to simplify high-pressure situations to just two options.
The problem with this, of course, is that there are rarely just two options. The saber-toothed tiger went extinct 12,000 years ago, but our brains haven't yet caught up. As this Harvard Business Review article says, "We devote mental energy to figuring out how to avoid a loss rather than developing new possibilities to explore."
In other words, in a high-pressure situation, we're still putting most of our energy into trying not to be eaten.
How do you get around this "binary bias?" These two techniques may help.
Anticipate the crisis.
Many, if not most, high-pressure situations are predictable. A key employee leaves, a supplier goes out of business, a competitor comes up with a game-changer. All of these situations can be anticipated and planned for. So spend some time – either alone or, preferably, with your team – playing "What if?" What if the bad thing were to happen? What would you do? What options would you have?
Play the "vanishing options" game
This comes from Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. When we're under pressure, we tend to pick one option, at which point we stop even considering other options. What the Heaths suggest is a mental game that goes like this: Assume you can't choose any of the options you're considering and then ask, "What else could I do?" Unless you're in that saber-toothed tiger situation and literally have no time (rare), this game will force your brain to see other possibilities.
High-pressure situations are rarely either / or, rarely yes or no. By reducing them to a false binary, we're depriving ourselves of other – possibly better – options.