High level summary: - We are conditioned to think and react in binaries or polarities (right or wrong, black or white, either/or) when the world actually lives in the grey and in the rainbow
- This conditioning can cause fear and create an impasse when it comes to diversifying workplace or community you are a part of
- From my experience, polarity mapping can be a practical tool for inclusive leaders to break out from the us vs. them paradigms.
Do you see a vase? Do you see two faces? Can you see both at the same time?
Research shows that majority of people cannot see both the vase and two faces simultaneously. This is partly due to how our mind is hard-wired by society to see one or the other based on our binary thinking. We find it uncomfortable to mentally and emotionally grasp two truths at the same time.
Binary or polarity thinking is seeing two opposites: black or white, win or loss, us versus them, change or status quo. Our current capitalist system is based on winners or losers. In our Western political systems, it's increasingly becoming a fight between two parties - left or right. In our education system, we are often taught that there is one right answer and if you chose any other response you are wrong.
But of course, we know that's not how the world actually works. Our realities often exist in the grey and in the rainbow. There are often multiple truths. Rather than situations being 'either/or', it's possible to see diverse perspectives when thinking ‘both/and.’
While we may know this consciously, we are hard wired through conditioning to see and react to the world through binaries or two opposing views. We often default to taking one side over another. This approach to situations can live in our conscious or subconscious thinking.
Subconscious is 90-95% of our mind that lives outside of our conscious awareness that stores our beliefs, attitudes, unconscious biases, memories, and stories we tell ourselves. It's like a cultural thumbprint.
Or another way to see is our mind is like a computer program that has input from the external world archived as data and our subconscious is the hard drive. We retrieve data from the subconscious as needed and mental shortcuts of categorizing information into binaries, for example, have enabled us to survive without going into an overdrive every time our mind has to process 400 billion bits of data per second. These mental shortcuts for quick associations however can be problematic too.
Even if intellectually you know the world is complex, emotionally you might get fired up, angry, feel a sense of threat based on your subconscious belief based on us versus them or win or lose.
Applying this binary mindset in the workplace, I have come to understand that we need to transcend this thinking to ensure our workplace diversifying efforts don't get stalled by conscious or unconscious limiting beliefs.
Here are some common binary thinking that can get us stuck:
There was an organization working towards diversifying their team and they rolled out information sessions to talk about their efforts. One courageous person nervously put up his hand. He hesitated but eventually expressed an unpopular opinion: "I know intellectually I am all for diversity and inclusion and yet I can’t help but feel like someone like me - a white man - will lose when there are diversity efforts"
Here was an ally - a feminist and advocate for racialized people - who courageously expressed a fear that is latent in many of us (me included) who consciously do this work but are triggered unconsciously because our dialogue on diversity is often framed as "us versus them" and "loss versus gain."
I realized then that if we don’t overcome our hired-wired habit into categorizing situation as win or loss or us versus them or other binaries that get us stuck, we won’t be able to move beyond our fear of change towards excitement of new possibilities.
He inspired me to better understand how our mind works and discover tools to rewire our neural pathways that trigger fear based on illusionary binary thinking. In fact two years later, he not only did not lose his job but due to the growing pie as the organization became more financially sustainable correlated with more diversity in staff makeup, there was an opportunity for him to get promoted.
How do we transition from scarcity mindset of trade-offs to abundance mindset of a rising tide?
"Inclusion of some groups leads to exclusion of others so how can you say that you are inclusive?" Our minds try to undermine the integrity or question the benefits of inclusive efforts when they exclude others. We want it to be one or the other. You are either inclusive or exclusive. Inclusion and exclusion are treated as opposing pillars that are independent of one another when in reality, they depend on each other. Inclusion of some does mean you exclude some and both intentions are needed for different reasons in different contexts.
For example, when I worked as a community builder in Regent Park, a neighbourhood going through transition from 100% social housing to mixed income, there were many efforts by communities to build a sense of unity among people who were relocated, returning and new. Neighbourhood changes meant an increasing diversity of race, income, sexual orientation as well as unequal power dynamic based on access to space etc. Without intention and efforts for meaningful social cohesion, range of human differences could in fact sow divisions and conflicts.
Given that the neighbourhood was still undergoing changes where people were being uprooted and new buildings were being constructed, it was important to create opportunities for people to share rituals for shared identity and shared connections. Thus the Regent Park community potluck was born; a monthly potluck to seed a sense of unity among difference through sharing food. For the inclusion of diversity, the monthly potluck was mostly excluded to folks who had a relationship to Regent Park. Some complained that this exclusivity contradicted the inclusive spirit of potlucks and that it should be open to the wider GTA.
While on the surface one can make this argument, it's important to see inclusion and exclusion as two sides of the same coin. For the given circumstance, exclusion to Regent was necessary; but of course this relationship isn't static. It can evolve over time based on how the context changes: with more connections and relationships built over time initiatives like the potluck could include people outside of Regent without undermining intention to create unity among difference within Regent's changing communities.
How can we move away from either inclusion or exclusion thinking to appreciating the nuances of needing both for different reasons at different times?
One tool that has been helpful for me to navigate these questions is called polarity mapping developed by Barry Johnson.
This tool is used when polarities like ones listed above exist and you want to acknowledge hopes and fears of two opposing views and see their interdependent relationship.
This framework helps you with the following:
- detect early warning signs of your fears coming true
- check assumptions and unconscious biases
- develop action steps so that your hopes and dreams of diversity and inclusion can be better realized
- develop action steps to mitigate worse case scenarios (get rid of your fear!)
It’s a framework to help you manage and balance the polarities and move away from getting stuck in binary thinking. It’s useful for individuals and organizations who want to build competencies around intregrative thinking that helps create multiple solutions as opposed to get bogged down by fear.
I believe fear of change, of the other, and of the unknown is a huge impediment in creating more diverse workforce or communities or societies at large.
Fear is fuel to spreading hate. But often this fear comes from our thought patterns taught by society. We need to break free of these patterns to unlock multiple possibilities.
Through a framework like polarity mapping, we can hold space for fear but also hope in a workplace culture that we have yet to imagine.