NUGGET : We demonize polarization (it does have its dark side) but it’s an important dynamic that helps fuel complex change processes. When it is most intense, it is a signal that the likelihood of breakthrough may be near. So, don’t be afraid of polarization. Stimulate it, and then find ways to transform it into more robust and next generation solutions and agreements.
Okay, we in the US (and you in the rest of the world) are probably fed up with the polarization in the US Congress. It is befuddling, frustrating and could leave a long tail of destruction even if and when compromise or new kinds of solutions occur. It’s an example of polarization that seems to be an end in itself – and thus gives this very important part of the change process a bad rap.
It’s easy to see disagreement and polarization as bad, threatening, and something to control. This view leads to sending potentially powerful points of view underground where they fester, waiting to reappear later to block, sabotage, and destroy (think Syria, many “Arab Spring” revolutions, Enron, many divorces, US Government shutdown… the list goes on).
Looking closely at major changes, acute polarization often happens before major breakthroughs. This happens often enough for me to conclude that polarization is important for the change process. Examples today: Syria, Iran, and even North Korea vs. most of the rest of the world; US Republican and Democratic legislators. In companies there are common polarizations: short vs. long-term priorities; participative vs. top down decision-making for an important agenda, sides related to virtually any complex decision.
Process-oriented psychology, which I have been studying for years, provides a powerful and useful perspective on polarization as part of the process of change:
• Something in the environment triggers roles and perspectives to form (e.g., the current financial crisis has awakened people to the need for new controls and spending models)
• The perspectives crystalize and are defined partly by being different and often opposite to other views (e.g., Tea Party libertarianism vs. extreme Democrat socialism in the US.)
• People merge with their positions and don’t dare diverge from the “party line.’ Those with the opposite view become the enemy.
• Meantime, people who have moderate and more integrative views drop out, creating an increasingly larger group that is not engaged but has a lot of potential power if increasingly frustrated.
• Polarization is inherently unstable and can’t last forever. Resolution may occur in a number of ways: 1) one side destroys the other, 2) the polarization creates a crisis is resolved through strong-arm tactics or temporary compromise, 3) people with moderate views who have dropped out become active and move in to break the logjam (“throw out the incumbents”), or 4) polarized views soften as people begin to see that the other side has points they agree with; both sides begin to move toward a compromise or a higher order solution.
Although polarization is frightening, uncomfortable, and seems to waste time, it is not the enemy. It helps raise change energy to the surface. It wakes people up. It creates lots of alternatives. It calls on everyone to engage, even though, for a time many people drop out of the dialogue. It helps prepare people for the inevitability of change.
So, stimulate different points of view and don’t be rattled by polarized views and dynamics. Support and create a place for conflict to occur (this is one good role of media talk shows). When the heat of change reaches fever pitch, help all sides see where they agree and find ways to bring the dropouts back into the system.
In change, what we thought was good (no conflict, minimum resistance, smooth and quick acceptance), is actually not so good. Conflict, resistance, polarization, failure – all of these are inherent in Nature’s evolution. Manage these forces by encouraging them, providing a space for them to play out, and resisting the urge to send them underground. Know that when the polarization is most intense, you are on the edge of breakthrough. Then help channel the energies for productive purposes.
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