Polarity Management by Barry Johnson

In “Polarity Management” Barry Johnson introduces a process for managing unresolvable conflicts. A lot of the difficulties we experience in life are “not problems to solve but polarities to manage.” The first step of polarity management is making sure that the issue at hand is in fact a polarity and not a problem.  If an issue is ongoing and has two interdependent poles then it is a polarity to manage. Polarity management uses a polarity quadarant which maps both the upside and downsides of two conflicting poles. This creates a big picture view of a conflict and allows a group to manage it better. The goal of polarity management is to minimize the time spend in the downsides of poles and maximize the time spent in the upsides of poles. Polarity management is a powerful process that can help navigate the increasingly complex terrain of modern day life.





-Some difficulties are not problems to solve but polarities to manage

-Polarities to manage are sets of opposites that can’t function well independently. Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a a “solution” and neglect the other.


Chapter 1 – Teamwork is Not a Solution

-“For every complex problem there is a simple solution. And it’s wrong.”

-Whenever there is a push for a shift from one pole of a polarity to the other, it is because those pushing are….

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

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

-If you focus on the team to the neglect of the individual, you get the downside of team.


Chapter 2 – Breathing New Life into Your Organization 

-Breathing is a polarity management process

-You do not solve the exhale/inhale polarity by choosing to either inhale or exhale. You manage it by getting the benefits of each while appreciating the limits of each.

-To gain and maintain the benefits of one pole, you must also pursue the benefits of the other.


Chapter 3 – The Misunderstood Leader 

-It is more effective to be clear and flexible than to focus on one or the other. If you just focus on being clear, you will be seen as rigid. If you just focus on being flexible, you will be seen as ambiguous or wishy-washy.


Chapter 4 – Being “Right” is the easy step

-It is the incompleteness combined with the conviction of the rightness (accuracy) of their perception that is the source of a potential problem.

-Instead of contradicting each other’s view, the task is to supplement each other’s view in order to see the whole picture.

-“I don’t see it. You say it’s there. Help me see it.”

-The accuracy of each person is no longer being challenged. On the contrary, it is being assumed.

-It is easier to expand your view than to get those with an opposing view to expand theirs

-You are in control of the decision to let go of your view and to put your effort into seeing the other’s view. You are not in control of the decision on the part of the other people to let go of their view and put forth their effort at seeing your view.

Four reasons for looking beyond your own view:

1.You realize someone else sees it differently.
2.You can expand your own reality.
3.If you can see another’s point of view, he or she is more likely to accept an invitation to see yours.
4.If you have a polarity to manage, seeing the other half of the polarity will help you manage the situation better.


Chapter 5 – Crusading and Tradition Bearing 

-“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F.Scott Fitzgerald

-Those crusading are the change agents.They see some problems with the present and want to make things better for the future. They make three contributions to the managing of this dilemma:

1.They identify the downsides if the present pole.
2.They identify the upsides of the opposite pole.
3.They provide the energy necessary to move from the downside of the present pole to the upside of the opposite pole.

Those tradition bearing make three contributions to the managing of this dilemma:

1.They identify the upside of the present pole, which are things that should be maintained or preserved.
2.They identify the downside of the opposite pole, which are potential problems they want to avoid.
3.They provide the energy necessary to preserve the upside of the present pole and to avoid the downside of the opposite pole.

-People are more likely to hear you after they feel heard. If you can first confirm their reality, they are more likely to be open to expand that reality to include yours.

-To be effective at creating change it is important to respect what has been built by others and about preserving what is good from the past and the present.

-Tradition bearers often see those crusading as naive complainers who do not appreciate how well off they really are.

-The object of the effective tradition bearer is not to block crusades but to join them and challenge them at the same time.

-The goal of Polarity Management is to maximize the upsides of each pole and minimize the downsides.


Chapter 6 – A problem to solve or a polarity to Manage? 

1.Is the difficulty ongoing?
2.Are there two poles that are interdependent?

-If the answer to the above two questions is a yes than you have a polarity to manage

-Catching a ball once is a problem to solve, While Juggling is a polarity to manage

Chapter 7 – How to Recognize a Well-Managed Polarity When you See one 

-In a well-managed polarity most time is spent experiencing the positive aspects of one pole or the other. When the downside of a pole is experienced, it is used as a signal to move to the positive of the other pole.

Five types of skill and knowledge are necessary to manage a polarity well:

1.Knowing when you have a polarity to manage rather than a problem to solve.
2.Knowing there is an upside and downside to each pole.
3.Sensitivity to the downsides as they are experienced.
4.A willingness to shift poles as needed.
5.Knowing how to talk to your opposite and mediate between opposites

-Ignoring a polarity is one way to manage it poorly

-Identify those who will be the ones most sensitive to each of the downsides. You might agree to encourage them to let everyone know when they are experiencing the downside to which they are most sensitive.


Chapter 8 – Two Departments in Conflict 

-Polarity management can be useful in conflict resolution sessions if some agreement can be reached on one or a few key dilemmas underlying the conflict.

-No one is asked to contradict the accuracy of their reality, yet everyone is supported in expanding their reality.

-Physically moving as a small group through the quadrants and creating the content for each quadrant has two positive results: (1) ownership of the picture that reflects the values and vocabulary of the members and (2) an increased ability by everyone to see the whole picture.

-Each side in a conflict has to take responsibility for both polarities

Chapter 9 – Nine – Action Steps 

3 polarity pitfalls…..

1.Polarity Management as the “Answer” to everything – (If all you have in your toolkit is a hammer, everything looks like a nail)

2.Avoiding the issue – (We cannot solve it, so let’s forget it)

3.No Decisions – (If it is nor a problem to solve, there are no decisions to be made)


-You need to make decisions regularly about which polarities to attend to and how.