Why polarity thinking is holding us back

Are you tired of what passes for conversation and discourse today? Things seem to be getting more and more polarized, unprofessional, and non-collegiate. Much of the thinking seems stuck in a 20th century binary meme-pool, casting everything in the language of ‘good vs evil’ and ‘us vs them’. 

As 2022 starts up, I was motivated to put my thoughts into writing by seeing posts on the dichotomies of ‘leader vs boss’ as well as the never-ending trope of ‘agile vs waterfall’. 

While these dichotomies might be born out of showing that something new is different from what pre-dated it, doing that by painting them as polar opposites is so lazy, last century, and at times even inhumane. 

In change management, we know that one of the first steps for introducing something new is to honor what came before, to recognize its strengths and how it is appropriate for some contexts, then to show how the context might be changed by new forces creating disruption, so that a new approach might be more effective. That doesn’t paint one approach as wrong, just that there are options that might better suit a different context.  

If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable being forced to take sides in an argument, then you’ll know where I’m coming from. Maybe your response is: “walk away”, “a plague on both their houses” or “I don’t have a dog in this fight”. All of those responses would be understandable; after all, we only have so much energy, right? 

There are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth.

What if we were able to help people see a pathway between their opposing views?

How do we find middle ground?

There’s a lot of great writing on how polarities are really a continuum, and I am heavily influenced by the thinking around Situational Leadership. So, while we could explore some kind of mix or hybrid of the presenting views, I prefer a different tack. 

I find it helpful to be curious about we might maintain situational awareness and mindfully choose what fits the context at a point in time. Sometimes the parties glare at me until I walk away. That’s fine. Nobody can be forced out of their polarities. However, mostly, I find that people are receptive to the idea and keen to understand more. 

In my courses on Leadership, Change Management, Agility, and Coaching, we often land on a discussion of what leadership means. While that risks sliding into the ‘bad’ boss vs the ‘good’ leader, I open it first by talking about a natural tension between polarities, showing that continuum as a slider (rather than an on/off switch), so that we can choose our settings based on what is needed. 

For example, we might pitch a continuum of outcome orientation to people development. Imagine the discussion that follows when you talk about what context suits each end of the continuum, and where the slider should be set to suit someone’s specific context. 

Does that resonate with you? 

I’d be keen to hear your thoughts and look forward to the discussion.

Note: Article originally published on LInkedIn.

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