Unresolvable Polarization?


Polarity Management

Polarities are eternal relationships

Many difficulties are reflections of relationships that are not resolvable binariese.g., not either/or problems. Rather, they are unsolvable dilemmase.g., both/and polarities. In week one (Root of polarization problem?) and two (Unsolvable problems) of this mini-series we’ve taken up Barry Johnson’s Polarity Management™ book [PM] and model. 

As I allude above, the most significant insight Johnson’s model presents is the distinction between ‘problems to solve‘ and ‘polarities to manage.’ Johnson’s approach strikes a corollary to an idea found in the adaptive leadership literature—cf. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky.




Heifetz and Linsky make some very helpful observations regarding the nature of problems. Especially helpful is the distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges. Of the latter, some are unsolvable dilemmas. Barry Johnson’s work takes-up this more specific/nuanced form of adaptive challenges, that is, unsolvable dilemmas, or ‘polarities.’


Image by sunil kargwal || CC0

Predictable failure in discernment…

Polarities are eternal relationships. Think about that, “eternal.” Sounds a bit drawn out. That doesn’t seem to fit conveniently within our hyper-individualistic, hyper-rational, time-is-money, bottom-line, problem-solving, culture/organizations. For reasons we discussed in week one of this mini-series (Root of polarization problem?), our typical response to difficulty/issues/obstacles of most any kind is to reflexively see the matter in binary terms (‘resolution’), as a problem to solve.

Thankfully, Johnson’s model is realistic in it’s anthropological outlook and anticipates humans will behave within legacy patterns. Johnson’s reframing does help us reconcile our nature and reality. 

Johnson’s map integrates our nature in its reconciliation methodology. This forms one of the models strongest features, namely, helpfulness in defining the real difficulty in any given organization/situation and getting beyond our institutional/cultural blindness [our Jungian shadows]. This feature is often very useful in uncovering, discovering, revealing key aspects that tend to remain hidden within the shadows of unrecognized/unmanaged polarities.



PM Art enlarged


The infinity-loop in the graphic indicates the dynamic movement (over time) the model describes, but what creates the motion? The natural movement in an unsolvable dilemma is created by what Johnson calls the, “Polarity ‘Two-Step.'” Namely, energy and focus moving 1) up/across and 2) down… (repeat – repeat – repeat ….). 

So, simple aversion easily explains why experiencing a downside naturally channels energy toward an upside shift. But, why not just up-shift on one’s present pole, from downside to upside? What directs the energy to also shift across in the first step of the Two-Steps





The ‘Two-Step’ is partly the result of what we described earlier, e.g., our tendency to see everything as a binary needing a technical solution, that is: a problem to be solved. You’ve likely heard it said that when one has a hammer in their hand, then every problem looks just like a nail. So, even when our context is a polarity to be managed, one chief difficulty is we tend to see everything as a problem to be solved. We naturally tend to identify our experience (or anticipation) of present pole downsides as the problem—when actually the difficulty is systemic (e.g., involves relations between the poles and the pros and cons of both poles) Johnson writes [PM, pg. 7]:

Whenever there is a push for a shift from one pole of a polarity to the other, it is because those pushing [‘reformers’] are

    1.  Experiencing or anticipating the downsides of the present pole which they identify as the “problem,” and

    2.  They are attracted to the upsides of the other pole which they identify as the “solution.”

Further, the peculiar nature of a dilemma (or polarity) itself is also an internal driver of the ‘Two-Step’ process. That is to say, the upside of the present pole doesn’t really address all the concerns of the downside of the present pole. Some of the downside issues of the present pole are only addressed by features of the upside of the other pole. So, organic and incidentally-attending energies drive the ‘up/across’ step-one movement in the Two-Step.

So, how about the genesis of the second-step movement,’ e.g., ‘down?’ That’s even easier, we’ll begin there next time.


Closeup of a large stone pathway with greenery on each side

Next week…

So, how does the model help us with our blindness and reveal hidden issues? Next time we’ll do some thinking about people in our organizations that we may often think of as problematic—chronic complainers, recalcitrant sticks-in-the-mud, and revolutionarieswho may hold the keys to healthy PM

Before you go, some important material that I feel is closely related…. a short video that I suspect will provoke your thought.

Bonus video:


A Tale of Two economies meme 600

Is having two economies what happens whenat enormous scale, and at the highest levelspolarities to manage are seen as problems to solve? Please watch:



Your thoughts?

I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?



Polarity Management


2 thoughts on “Unresolvable Polarization?

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