Think about the organizational culture of your company. Is it centralized or decentralized? Top-down or bottom up? Traditional or innovative? We are so used to seeing organizational culture in binary terms: “this or that,” rather than “both and.”
In today’s world of speed and complexity, a different perspective is needed. This article describes an organization culture theory that can help. Polarity management, developed by Barry Johnson, proposes that some of today’s organization problems are so complex, that the goal should not be single approaches and solutions. Instead, we should focus on balancing different perspectives, or poles.
So, instead of selecting a centralized or decentralized culture, or a culture of top-down clarity or emergent self-direction, companies and teams should seek to balance competing poles. This is because too much of any pole blocks the benefits that come from the other pole. For example, an organization may adopt self-directed teams to support empowerment, but also instill a culture that embraces repeatable processes and clear milestones to ensure accountability.
Workplace diversity management is a great topic for understanding polarity management theory. Celebrating diversity usually focuses on acknowledging and highlighting the benefits of differences. However, it is also important that an organization or team have a common sense of identify and cohesion – forming a “tribe” that stresses what is shared, rather than what is diverse. These are complex forces to balance, and polarity management offers a new framework for expanding what might be possible.
When your organization or team defines two poles that may appear to conflict – such as centralization or decentralization, or top-down or bottom-up – ask yourself how both could coexist. What are the benefits of each pole? What downsides might come from overemphasizing one over another? What action items or organization change steps are suggested by this analysis?
Polarity management provides a framework for asking these questions, and for supporting a richer, more diverse organization culture.