The following story is loosely based on a few clients I have worked with, but has been changed to respect confidentiality.
Last year, I supported a workplace that was going through a process to improve communication and trust between teams that had traditionally avoided working together. It was an important moment. The workplace was still reeling from the massive changes they made to go virtual during the pandemic, and people were exhausted and burnt out. What’s more, the move to remote work had deepened divisions between already disconnected teams.
The leadership team identified that the increased division was causing conflict and distrust, and it was getting serious. They felt strongly that they needed to act right away to bring people together. But when they told staff what they were planning, things erupted. People were very upset and told them they would not tolerate more change.
After several meetings where they cycled through the same conversation without getting anywhere, everyone was feeling lost and confused, and stuck in their positions.
What they didn’t realize
What they didn’t realize is that they were dealing with a polarity.
A polarity in conflict is a disagreement that is fundamentally unsolvable, because there is no clear right or wrong answer. A polarity becomes a conflict because people care deeply about the outcome, and their underlying ideas, values and beliefs pull them strongly to one side or the other.
When a topic is polarized, we tend to have a hard time holding both perspectives at the same time. If I am feeling overwhelmed by constant change and I engage with someone in the pro-change camp, I might push for a stability I know might be too much, and become stagnant. If I am feeling urgency to make a change happen, I am likely to feel frustrated and judgmental when I perceive people as slowing things down unnecessarily. The accusations fly, people divide into sides, and everyone loses sight of the complexity of the situation.
Here are some common polarities leaders have to navigate
Some common polarities that show up in workplace conflict include:
- Autonomy vs Responsibility: Do we prioritize people’s freedom to work how they want to, OR do we prioritize their responsibility and accountability to the team and organization?
- Direction vs Democracy: Do we believe in a strong and directive role for leaders in decision making OR do we believe in a facilitative or democratic approach to decisions?
- Process vs Outcome: Do we prioritize the way something happens, for example the quality of collaboration and how it builds our capacity, OR do we focus more on the final outcome regardless how we get there?
- Growth vs Sustainability: Are we focusing on rapid growth, OR do we slow down to build in sustainability?
- Stability vs Change: Do we keep going as we have been OR do we introduce new ways of doing things?
Notice how these questions don’t have “right” or “wrong” answers. They are great questions to ask. The problem is when we get entrenched in one side or the other, and lose sight of the complexity.
Working with the complexity of a polarity
Both sides in a polarity need to try to see the benefits and limitations of the options, and to discern what is needed in the moment. Do we need to slow down and take a break so that we have the energy to move forward with change, or have we been stagnating and it’s time for a jumpstart? A more fluid approach is to understand that change and stability are both important, and they need to be balanced.
The question is not “Should there be change or stability?”
A more helpful question might be: “We know we need both change and stability right now. What kinds of solutions could we find that would help us find the right balance for this moment?”
When a polarity turns into a conflict, people struggle to step out of their positions to explore these kinds of questions with curiosity. I have found that it is very helpful in those moments to use specific methods of working with polarity.
The basic principle of these methods is to bring together everyone who is stuck in the polarity to explore what is good about both sides, and also the negative side effects of going too far in one direction. The goal is to find the balance between the two sides that most directly addresses people’s concerns and any negative side effects.
One very helpful method is called Polarity Management, described in the book by Barry Johnson. In a facilitated conversation, a group of people who are stuck in a polarity starts by exploring all of the benefits of one end of the pole, for example stability. At some point, people naturally start to bring up the limitations or the negative side effects of stability. Once that has been explored, they switch to explore the benefits of the other pole, for example change. The end goal is to support people to understand from their own conversation that managing a polarity requires constant balancing to access the benefits of each side, while minimizing the negative side effects.
Polarity management is an extremely effective tool in many situations. However, in my experience, it has some limitation. For example, it doesn’t encourage people to explore the deeper emotions, assumptions, and values that feed the entrenchment in one side or the other. When people feel emotionally invested in their perspective, it can be helpful to go deeper under the surface of the conversation to understand the emotions and unspoken things that are driving it.
The Lewis Method of Deep Democracy can be very helpful as a way of understanding a polarity at this deeper level. Deep Democracy is a facilitated group process that supports people to explore their inner experience of the polarized topic and surface the feelings, beliefs and values that lead them to take a side. I have found it to be a powerful route to insight, and a great way for a group to understand themselves and their situation on a more profound level.
Whether Polarity Management, Deep Democracy or some other method seems like the right way for your situation, the key is to support people to recognize that they are creating a false either/or dynamic in a complex situation that needs balance and discernment.
What happened to the workplace stuck in change vs stability?
The workplace that was dealing with the polarity of stability vs change needed to figure out what to do. We started with a Polarity Management exercise with the leadership. They found it extremely helpful, and many people identified the ways they had fallen into camps, based on their own assumptions about whether change or stability was more desirable.
Leadership also realized they didn’t fully understand the strong reaction of the team. They knew that everyone was exhausted, but were surprised by the degree of anger. We wondered if there was something else going on. We decided to host a Deep Democracy conversation for anyone who wanted to come, in order to surface the wisdom of people’s reactions.
It turned out that people were open to more change, but not the one that leadership was promoting.
What we learned through the conversation was surprising. People identified that they had felt forced to make the changes at the height of the pandemic. While they understood why that was necessary to get through the crisis, many people felt that leadership had fallen into a habit of more directive decision making than they were comfortable with. Part of the burnout and change fatigue was coming from frustration over a lack of autonomy.
Through some hard discussions, it became clear that people wanted to have better relationships and more connection between the teams. But they wanted a say in the pace and in how it happened.
By surfacing what was hidden, they found a delicate balance to move forward.
Wanting to build your capacity to lead through conflict? Check out our upcoming learning opportunities for leaders: Building Emotional Agility and Generative Conflict: Leadership Skills for Healthy Workplaces. You can also sign up for the Big Waves mailing list for special promotions and to be the first to know about the upcoming launch of an at-your-own-pace conflict skills training!