From the agora to the office: Dealing with false dilemmas at work

Jun 24, 2024

4 mins

From the agora to the office: Dealing with false dilemmas at work
Coline de Silans

Journaliste indépendante


Have you ever been forced to choose between two options at work, even though neither would benefit you? This situation is called a “false dilemma.” It’s a way of manipulating someone and coercing them to accept a certain point of view.

“To stay afloat we’re making drastic budget cuts, otherwise we’ll have to let some of you go.” This is how Clémentine, a 28-year-old digital project manager, was notified about the pay cut she would soon receive. Uncompromising reasoning like this offered Clémentine no other solution than to tolerate a sudden drop in income without flinching. This is a rhetorical fallacy that the Greeks coined the false dilemma.

A philosophical fallacy

To better understand false dilemmas, we need to start with the word “fallacy.” A fallacy is a false belief used in illogical or incorrect arguments, either based on an erroneous premise or aiming to mislead. Originating from ancient Greece, these tactics were influenced by philosophers, who argued that any opinion can take on the appearance of truth. The legacy of the sophists is found in words that intend to convince, rather than inform, be it in politics, the economy, or the workplace.

The “false dilemma” is a frequently used fallacy. It gives the impression that there are only two possible solutions to a problem, ignoring any nuance of a given situation. Among the best-known false dilemmas are the famous words of George W. Bush, who, following the attacks of September 11th, affirmed that each nation should make a decision: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” It’s with this inaccurate impression that the false dilemma rests: the idea that alternative solutions do not exist and that the answer is only either choice A or choice B.

In business, situations arise like the one experienced by Clémentine. She felt confronted and cornered with no alternatives than the two proposed. Often, both options are to the advantage of the person creating the false dilemma. This technique is even more disingenuous than it appears because it gives the illusion of choice when there is none.

The danger of false dilemmas

Leave the company or agree to a pay cut? Neither of these options was satisfactory for Clémentine, yet she chose to stay. “There’s no option when it comes to choosing between the plague and cholera,” insists Ariane Bilheran, philosopher and clinical psychologist. “By making people believe that we’re offering a choice, we are leaving the employee responsible for the guilt of having chosen.” This pernicious technique is used particularly when an employee is put in a vulnerable situation: a change in work plans, company buyouts, alterations to job requirements, etc.

“This is what we call a conflict of loyalty,” explains Bilheran. “In my professional experience, I have often encountered conflicts of loyalty regarding the acceptance of poor working conditions. For example, either giving additional tasks to an employee due to reduced staff, even if it means pushing that employee to burnout, or suggesting to them that, if they cannot absorb the workload, it would be better for them to look for another job.”

Another popular false dilemma in the workplace is the relationship between happiness at work and a good salary. Many workers take a position that lacks meaning because the pay is great, and conversely, having the chance to pursue a job they’re passionate about, some accept a salary below their expectations. This is where the vast scale of false dilemmas comes into play, to the extent that it’s not only the result of an ill-intentioned manager or company but can also be influenced by society and once internalized, seems completely logical.

How to avoid them

How can we spot these situations and avoid them? When presented with two options that don’t suit you, remember to seek alternatives and keep asking questions.

Let’s say your employer asks you to accept a heavier workload. You can say no, but if you refuse, you’ll be dismissed. Ask yourself these questions: Is this the only way to cope with layoffs in the company? Couldn’t the tasks of the eliminated positions be distributed equitably across the entire team? Couldn’t certain work assignments be postponed to concentrate on those that would allow the company to recover faster? Or even, would it be too dramatic to leave a company that doesn’t prioritize the well-being of its employees?

Allowing yourself to take a step back from the difficult situation you’ve been put in can help you gain a valuable perspective on the situation. “Often the problem is that managers are subject to cascading pressure as well, and then they transfer it to their teams,” says Bilheran. Suggesting alternatives to your manager is one way for them to consider other solutions they may not have thought about initially.

Another way to defend yourself against a false dilemma is to oppose it with a strong counterexample. For instance, “We faced reduced staff two years ago, and we managed to turn things around without any of us having to take on extra responsibilities.” Providing concrete and documented examples will prove that other solutions exist.

Identifying a false dilemma is the first step to fighting it. If necessary, seek counsel from an occupational psychologist or the human resources department. “It’s important to identify the conflict of loyalty and to be able to name it,” says Bilheran. “This requires a certain amount of distancing, which most employees are not capable of because they depend on their work for their livelihood, but calling out a false dilemma is essential to asserting your rights.”

Giving false dilemmas a name allows us to better identify them and recognize them for what they truly are: a manipulation technique that forces us to make a choice that goes against our best interests.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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