Managing intractable problems: the neuroscience of polarity thinking

Posted on February 7, 2014. Filed under: Attention Matters, Human Capital | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Linda Ray looks at how some problems just can’t be solved, only managed.  What we know about the brain sheds light on the importance of polarity management at a time when we need more and more creative ways to deal with our increasing complex world.


polarity brain


Over the last ten or fifteen years, the concept of ‘polarity management’ has been gaining increasing attention. According to Barry Johnson, who has been researching polarity management since the 1970s, oganisations that tap the power of polarities out-perform those that don’t.  Other experts confirm this. For example, in Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras refer to polarity management as “the genius of the ‘AND'”, noting that it happened to be the distinguishing ingredient for companies that outperformed the stock market during the period of their research. Richard Tanner Pascale calls polarity management “managing contention”. Charles Hampden -Turner refers to it as “re-solution of dilemmas”.

What is polarity thinking?

According to Abby Straus, a partner at Maverick & Boutique and an expert in polarity management:

Today’s complex and rapidly changing environments are filled with ongoing tensions, known in the business literature as paradox, dilemmas, ‘wicked problems’ or polarities. Opinions abound — and arguments frequently arise about an assortment of issues.

While these tensions are frequently treated as ‘either/or’ problems to solve, they are, in fact, ‘both/and’ polarities to leverage: interdependent pairs of ideas that need each other over time to create and sustain success. As Straus asserts, when we focus on one aspect, or pole, to the neglect of the other, we achieve sub-optimal performance. However, when we leverage them both as a system, we are better able to achieve our goals.

Forces in operation

EMERGENT_Reza_Ali_11Neuroscience sheds light on why we are drawn to polity-thinking. First, the brain likes certainty, which invites polarities, something that is familiarly  known as black and white, either/or thinking. This, in turn, creates cognitive dissonance, which is something the brain doesn’t like and valiently attempts to resolve — sometimes even by returning to polarities and black and white thinking. The brain also likes things simple and always seeks the path of least resistance. Since energy is a precious resource, the brain sees no reason to waste it. However, certain problems are just complex — there is no way around it. This complexity creates more cognitive dissonance and leads to a confirmation bias. The brain will naturally look for evidence that best supports the way it wants things to be and ignore other evidence that doesn’t conform.

Another extremely significant  factor is that our educational system, which has trained us to look for the right answer whenever we are presented with a problem.  Overwhelmingly and particularly in early years, our educational system has favoured polarity-thinking — one right answer, in other words — over complex, multifaceted problem-solving. In effect, this has shaped our brains, our habits of reflection, and our expectations.

Polarity management

A well-managed polarity is one in which it’s possible to capitalise on the inherent tensions between the two poles. On the other hand, a polarity that is managed poorly is evident when one pole is focused on to the neglect of the other.  The point is that with a polarity to manage, the focus on either pole is not sustainable. Any effort to generate a ‘right answer’ will generate resistance. As Johnson says, “Either the resistance will be overcome after a costly struggle or it won’t be overcome after a costly struggle”.

In an earlier post we spoke about the concept of attentional intelligence. Tapping into our meta cognition and noticing where polarities might be at play in our thinking can support us to notice when we are moving into either/or thinking. Stepping back and revising our thinking to view dilemmas as interdependent ideas that need each other may also support the process of insight. When we view dilemmas in this way we can support the formation of new connections in the brain that may foster new insights — insights that may not arise when we continue to treat them as either/or problems to solve. We also know that a persistent negative mood can be an insight inhibitor and, as such, maintaining focus on the problem rather than the possibilities of two interdependent ideas may result in approaching issues in known rather than ad hoc ways.


We’ve collected some of  the polarities that have been explored by a number of experts.  Have a look and consider which polarities might be at play in your organisation.



Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.21.37 PMAbby Straus will be presenting a workshop on polarity management in Brisbane, Friday 7 March 2014, 9am-4pm. She will show you how to identify polarities,  how to ‘map’ them in order to understand the benefits of each point of view, how to leverage them to create clear, actionable strategies, and how to apply them to a variety of real-world issues.




Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource groupThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’. . .

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