Polarity Management – Transcending Paradoxes and Dualities


Polarized thinking involves viewing situations, concepts, or ideas as mutually exclusive opposites or extremes, rather than recognizing nuances and complexity. This can lead to black-and-white judgments, prejudice, and an inability to appreciate the interconnectedness of real-world phenomena. In organizations and society, there are deep divisions that hinder progress, stemming from polarities like centralization vs. decentralization, short-term vs. long-term focus, and individual freedom vs. social responsibility. Adopting a more nuanced perspective and effectively managing these polarities can facilitate better problem-solving, decision-making, productivity, and positive outcomes.


Many issues we struggle with and divide us are not one-sided and problems that we can solve. They are polarities – also called paradoxes, dualities, dilemmas, and wicked problems – that need to be managed. In the presence of polarities, we get caught in debates and struggles over which side is “right”. Polarity management helps us see and navigate address paradoxes and balance the interdependence of opposing forces. We work to see the greater system and then leverage the upside and mitigate the disadvantages of each side. This approach can be used in individual coaching, teams, organizations, communities, and in other complex systems. It serves as a tool for participatory decision-making processes, resolving conflicts constructively, envisioning future scenarios, identifying key priorities, implementing strategic objectives, and evaluating results.


Polarized thinking or binary thinking is a tendency to perceive situations, concepts, or ideas in terms of mutually exclusive opposites or extremes. Instead of recognizing shades of gray and the complexity of a situation, individuals tend to categorize things into "either-or" categories, where one option is viewed as entirely positive and the other as entirely negative. For example, viewing situations as either "good" or "bad," people as either "right" or "wrong," or ideas as either "success" or "failure," without considering the nuances or potential for balancing the two. This oversimplifies complex issues and inhibits critical thinking. It can lead to black-and-white judgments, prejudice, and an inability to appreciate the complexity and interconnectedness of many real-world phenomena. Polarities are present across the dimensions of ourselves, groups, organizations, and communities. Leaders face many polarities:
  • Candor and Diplomacy: Balancing honesty and tactfulness in communication. Candor involves speaking openly and honestly, while diplomacy involves being sensitive and considerate in delivering the message to maintain positive relationships.
  • Big Picture and Details: Striking a balance between focusing on the overarching vision or strategy (the big picture) and paying attention to the specific tasks, processes, or intricacies (details) necessary for achieving that vision.
  • Develop Bonds and Maintain Distance: Finding the right balance between building strong relationships and maintaining professional boundaries. Developing bonds involves fostering connections, trust, and camaraderie with team members, while maintaining distance involves preserving objectivity and avoiding favoritism.
  • Confidence and Humility: Navigating between self-assurance and modesty. Confidence involves believing in oneself, making decisions, and inspiring others, while humility involves acknowledging one's limitations, being open to feedback, and recognizing the contributions of others.
  • Control and Empowerment: Managing the balance between maintaining authority and delegating power. Control involves exercising authority, setting direction, and ensuring accountability, while empowerment involves trusting and enabling team members to take ownership, make decisions, and innovate.
  • Reward the Team and Reward Individuals: Striking a balance between recognizing collective achievements and acknowledging individual contributions. Rewarding the team involves celebrating group successes and fostering a sense of unity, while rewarding individuals involves acknowledging and incentivizing exceptional performance or effort.
  • Collaborate and Compete: Navigating between cooperation and competition. Collaboration involves working together, sharing resources, and leveraging collective strengths to achieve common goals, while competition involves striving for excellence, driving innovation, and achieving personal or organizational success.
Adopting a more nuanced and balanced perspective allows individuals to acknowledge and understand the multiple dimensions of a situation, facilitating more effective problem-solving and decision-making. In organizations, there are deep divisions that hinder effective communication, collaboration, and productivity. Polarization stifles conversation, disrupts productivity, and can lead to disenfranchisement among employees. Addressing polarization in the workplace is crucial for fostering an inclusive and productive organizational culture. Examples of polarities in the workplace that must be managed are:
  • Centralization and decentralization: Balancing the need for centralized control with the benefits of distributed decision-making.
  • Short-term and long-term focus: Managing immediate demands while planning for future sustainability and growth.
  • Cost and quality: Striking a balance between cost efficiency and delivering high-quality products or services.
  • Continuity and transformation: Maintaining stability and embracing change for innovation and adaptation.
  • Tradition and innovation: Balancing respect for historical customs and the need for new ideas and technologies.
  • Team competency and individual competency: Fostering collaboration within teams while recognizing and developing individual skills.
  • Mission and margin: Pursuing organizational purpose alongside financial sustainability.
  • Responsibility and freedom: Providing clear accountability while allowing autonomy for creativity and initiative.
Leaders and organizations that effectively manage these polarities can benefit from the advantages of both sides, leading to increased productivity, better decision-making, and improved outcomes. We see this manifest in the divide between different political ideologies in society. Embedded in these divides are issues of:
  • Justice and Mercy: Balancing the principles of justice and mercy within legal and social systems.
  • Change and Stability: Embracing change for progress while maintaining stability in essential areas.
  • Individual Freedom and Social Responsibility: Ensuring personal liberties while maintaining a sense of duty to the community.
  • Growth and Sustainability: Pursuing economic and developmental goals while preserving the environment and resources for future generations.
  • Diversity and Unity: Valuing the uniqueness of individuals and groups while fostering a sense of belonging and common purpose.
  • Globalization and Localization: Embracing the interconnectedness of global systems and economies while supporting local cultures and businesses.
  • Equity and Efficiency: Striving for fairness and equal opportunities while optimizing resources and processes for maximum productivity.
Leaders and members of communities need to recognize these polarities and work towards leveraging the strengths of each pole while mitigating their potential downsides.

Sample Activity

An approach for working with polarities in groups is Polarity Mapping. This is a useful exercise to do with a group locked in conflict or sharp disagreement about an issue, with dual camps unable to see the value of the other side. 
  1. Chart: Draw a 2x2 chart on a whiteboard or a slide and name the two polarities on the ends of the horizontal axis. Label the top of the vertical axis as the positive side and the bottom as negative. 
  2. Mapping: This initial step includes identifying what is present when you are in the "upsides" and "downsides" of each pole. Working quadrant by quadrant, ask the group to identify what is present in easy space. Add these to the chart.
  3. Early Warnings: Rather than react to a negative polarity, it can be helpful to discuss what are early indicators that the system is tipping into a downward spiral. 
  4. Action Steps: Next, explore concrete ways to enhance the upsides and avoid the downsides of each pole, understanding what will be achieved by managing it well, and the consequences of managing it poorly.
  5. Shared Commitments: With a shared understanding, a group can commit to common actions that increase the upside and reduce the downside and plan for monitoring efforts to spot early warning signals. 
A more detailed process can be found on the Polarity Partnerships site: https://polaritypracticetools.com/


Polarity management was created by Dr. Barry Johnson as an alternative to the prevailing mindset of solving all problems. The theory is based on the recognition that some challenges are ongoing and unsolvable, and they are actually dependent upon one another and must be managed together. About the social change origins of Polarity Thinking from Barry Johnson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3JfvIcokj4

Target Audience:

  • Facilitators
  • Community Organizers
  • Management Consultants

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