Managing Polarities and Conflict

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“Managing” Polarities and Conflict

People often have the idea that if they are in charge, they should fix everything. If there are “problem” groups or people, they should be shown the “right” way or removed. If there are two major factions in a society, they should be encouraged to form a joint compromise agenda. Such attitudes are based upon the assumptions that there is one right way to do everything and everyone in a Society should be heading in the same direction. This kind of dynamic is most likely to occur in a smaller Society or group, where there is not much room for a variety of agendas to be fulfilled because of limited resources, staffing and volunteer time. In larger Societies with more resources and people, where more agendas and goals can be pursued, there is more room and more opportunity for a diversity of interests and directions to function compatibly together.

When the former assumptions — about there being only one right way — are paramount, conflict is seen as some kind of disease. Everyone is supposed to agree. If they do not, something is wrong. If people get angry, they are not permitted to blow off steam. If conflict escalates to the point where people start calling names and having clandestine meetings, it is assumed that one side or the other is in the wrong and must be expunged. There is a problem, and it must be solved.

The Alban Institute and others who study group behavior have concluded that this is not a complete or realistic picture of how congregations, or other organizations, really work. There are times when a situation does need fixing, or a compromise is an effective solution, such as salary negotiations or an equitable allocation of resources. Getting to Yes and Getting Past No by Roger Fisher and William Ury, may be helpful for those who must mediate settlements. There are also what Barry Johnson, in his Polarity Management, calls “unsolvable problems”. He believes that, for the organization to remain effective, to maintain a creative tension that leads to growth, they should remain unsolvable. It seems to us that this concept of appreciating the diversity that leads to creative growth is core to Ethical Culture thinking. When we try to eliminate diversity, we are going against our core values.

Johnson’s book is particularly helpful for committee chairs, who are in natural conflict with their committees. Actually, these are not problems. They are the continuous conflicts between interdependent polarities, or opposites, represented by the interests of the members and groups who make up the organization. Some of the examples of polarities that Johnson gives are: rigidity/flexibility; individual/ team; either/or, planning/action; autocratic/participatory; stability/change; clarity/ ambiguity. Each side of these polarities is equally valuable under appropriate conditions.

According to this theory, conflict is necessary, and usually, good. Without conflict, there is no change. There is no way to shift back and forth between the two poles. Johnson believes that polarities within an organization should be “managed”, that is, manipulated to get the best of both opposites while avoiding their downside. A finance chair who can communicate to her board that the choice is not between being cheap or being profligate, but knowing when to be frugal and when to be generous, will transform her Society. A presider who can discern when outspoken critique is appropriate and when it is not, who can encourage members to adapt their communication styles to the needs of the group at the moment will help to transform the Society. A planner who can give reign to the dreamers during the visioning time and then help the realists who understand the resources, available or potential, to work with the dreamers to develop realizable goals will transform the Society.

George Parsons and Speed Leas, in Understanding Your Congregation As A System. have developed a questionnaire that allows congregations to evaluate whether they are in “creative tension” with respect to certain polarities; that is, almost, but not quite, in balance. The questionnaire tests whether authority is concentrated or dispersed; decision making is mandatory or discretionary; lay and professional leaders are managerial or transformational; work is done cooperatively or individually; orientation is to the past or to the future.

In this system, the object is not to strike a happy medium for each category. In fact, most lay leadership tends to be conservative and professional leadership visionary. However, a congregation that tends toward either extreme for many categories will have trouble shifting if conditions warrant it. A copy of your congregation’s current systems analysis can help new members assimilate more quickly. If they know from the start that decision making is tightly controlled, for example, they may not invest their time in individual projects that will not be carried out. Instead, they will either court the decision makers or work carefully to open up the process.

Both polarity management and systems analysis of polarities are extremely useful tools, but they cannot be explained in a few paragraphs or learned overnight. The Alban Institute gives workshops that explore both concepts. We have developed a version of the questionnaire for Ethical Culture groups which is available through the AEU Growth and Development Office. There are several Ethical Culture Leaders and members who can work with your Society to do such an analysis. Joy McConnell and other Ethical Culture leaders can give workshops in them as well.


Consultation on polarity management. Society Systems Analysis, workshops, and Ethical Culture materials for these are available through the AEU.

The basic resource for congregational polarities:

Updated 2014:

Understanding Your Congregation as a System by George D. Parsons and Speed B. Leas.

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