Today, statements like “United We Stand” seem nostalgic and naïve at best. Statements like “divided we fall” look like a locomotive thundering toward us a thousand mile an hour without breaks. Ask yourself honestly which statement seems the most like where our nation is today?
The Reality of Opposites
One of nature’s greatest certainties and mysteries is opposites. Opposites are a fact woven into the fabric of the world: night and day, hot and cold, left and right. Each of these poles provides a unique contribution to the meaning and quality of our lives.
We’re preconditioned to think of the opposite of what we believe in as somehow dangerous, wrong, or threatening. The truth is sometimes we must sometimes be conservative to protect core values and provide stability and safety; and sometimes we must be liberal to ensure adaptability, innovation, and social justice.
To foster healthy communities, we must be both strong and compassionate. Humans can’t effectively adapt if we create a false choice that suggests we must remain in one end of a spectrum and neglect the other. Both perspectives, left and right, need to be managed not pitted against each other. Powerful institutions and individuals try to exploit this polarity to create division and opposition among their fellow humans to convince us that one end of a polarity is more desirable or “better” than the other. This manipulation perpetuates a mentality of “right” and “wrong,” and “good” and “bad.” With this kind of thinking, liberalism and conservatism must always be at war. How’s that working out for us?
They can’t both be right we’re told. But which would you give up? Night or day? We need the imagination to combine the elements from differing viewpoints in solutions that provide new ways of structuring and leading our institutions and society.
An illuminating theory called Polarity Management dovetails with the MultiDentity Mindset. In this theory, nothing can exist in isolation without its opposite to define it. Without the constant recognition and balance of this tension between opposing forces, instability and imbalance will prevail.
What are polarities? Polarities are tensions inherently unavoidable and unsolvable. The ongoing natural tension between the poles can lead to dysfunction – or we manage the tensions and channel them into a creative energy that leads to better outcomes for organizations and communities.
But we cannot control what we do not perceive, so an aspect of the MultiDentity Mindset requires us to recognize and acknowledge polarities whenever we face them.
Barry Johnson, an author, consultant, and the leader of the Polarity Management community says: “In our culture, we are ‘spring-loaded’ to define all difficult situations as problems that can be fixed.” Johnson continues that we believe that: “If we are only smart enough to find the right answer, the problem will go away. But life’s experiences tell us that this approach frequently doesn’t work – problems never seem to get solved. The truth is, some “problems” are ongoing and can never be “solved” in a traditional sense. These are polarities – situations in which both conflicting points of view are true.” Johnson goes on to offer these examples of ways to frame dilemmas, using the concepts of Polarity Management:
- Leaders must be conservative for stability and revolutionary for change
- Organizations need centralized coordination and decentralized initiatives
- Managers and employees need training and must also do their work
- We must support team development and reward individual achievement
- We must reduce our costs and improve quality
- All of us face commitments at work and commitments at home.
Become an identity visionary and leader
Listed below are five key MultiDentity behaviors that will help you, your organization and community overcome either or thinking. Encourage community members to take these actions?
- Recognize the importance of enhancing mutual trust and respect among all members of the community
- Seek common interests
- Spend more time connecting across identity differences and talking with each other instead of attacking and demonizing each other through the media, especially social media
- Look for the truth in viewpoints that differ from your own
- Eliminate conflicts that drive stakeholders into lose-lose battles that harm the social fabric and the real interests of all