The advantages of thinking gray

Black-and-white thinking distorts your ability to see reality objectively. Jumping to conclusions too quickly when making important decisions does not serve you well. The stakes are high because your decisions will play a large part in determining whether you succeed or fail.

The world is complex. To efficiently navigate life, we make instant judgments. We categorize information as true or false. We label people as friends or enemies. Making quick decisions had its evolutionary advantages in helping us avoid predators and poisonous snakes. However, relying on quick judgments is not the most effective way to make important decisions at work and in your personal life.

We make instant judgments and quick decisions because uncertainty is both uncomfortable and mentally demanding. Our brains use lots of energy to process conflicting information, which is what we get when we engage in nuanced thinking or look at a problem from multiple points of view.

We want to resolve conflicts as quickly as possible to restore our physical and mental comfort. Think back to the last time you had a disagreement with a friend or co-worker. If you are like me, you wanted to either avoid the issue or resolve it as soon as possible. That’s how our brain feels when it’s conflicted.

Thinking gray is a mental model that forces you to delay forming an opinion until you have reviewed all the important facts and heard from all key stakeholders. This technique forces you to be patient. Thinking gray helps us overcome confirmation bias, which is our tendency to search for, interpret, and favor information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and desired outcomes.

Important questions rarely have black-and-white answers, and important decisions require self-reflection and input from others. In business, you make dozens of decisions every day.

  • Who do you hire?
  • What products do you build?
  • How do you know when to throw in the towel and kill a project that’s not working?
  • Should you raise more money to grow your business faster?
  • Do you fire an underperforming employee or invest more time helping them be successful?

Can you think of anything that will have a bigger impact on your success than the decisions you make? Luck may play a part, but your decisions can overcome bad luck or squander good luck.

Here are a few ways you can apply thinking gray to improve your judgement.

  1. Have fewer opinions. We are not experts on most things, so why do we need to have an opinion on so many issues?
  2. Hold your opinions loosely. Be open to new information and seek out diverse points of view.
  3. Change your vocabulary and learn to say, “I don’t know.”
  4. When you are in conflict with others, invest the time to understand other sides of an argument better than you understand your own.
  5. Write down and apply decision-making criteria to think through a problem.
  6. Create scenarios and use probability weighting. Are you 50%, 70% or 90% certain your decision is correct?

The best way to improve your thinking and the quality of your decisions is to refine your decision-making process. Not all decisions are important enough to require a process. But employing a process to avoid bias and blind spots when you are making an important decision will give you the best chance to be successful. Next time you’re making an important decision, avoid black-and-white thinking and remember to think in shades of gray to improve your judgement.


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