The Tyranny of “OR”

Instead of the the Tyranny of “OR,” How about the Possibility of “AND.”

Have you noticed that thinking in binary choices is sometimes a trap ? Binary thinking is that a solution to a problem is either/or.  No in between or negotiated solutions. It is a win/lose decision. We should use this kind of thinking, when it is a problem to solve not where both points of view are worthwhile. An example of a problem to solve is no guns, knives, or drugs in schools or in the workplace.  Most of the either/or decision involve safety or accepted practices like financial or ethical standards.

However, when dealing with humans, policies and procedures can get messy. Life gets in the way.  Aldous Huxley once said, “The only completely consistent people are dead.”  Humans and life provides challenges to equally applying some of our rules and regulations to people who are not equal or have equal circumstances.  On one hand we need contracts, employee handbooks, and common practices to guide our organizations.  On the other hand, what happens when a really good employee or a family member comes down with cancer or some other illness.  Do we strictly apply every rule without some compassion or flexibility?  Most people will help a colleague who is experiencing difficult life problems.

Most organizations adapt policies to accommodate unusual circumstances that life offers. Equality means everyone gets treated the same.  Equity is treating others based on what they need.  I know this is messy and I know unequal treatment can lead to litigation.  I also know we and are humans, are concerned with colleagues. That can lead to external or internal conflict. For some options to leverage these conflicts see my new book, Responding to Resistance:  30 Ways to Manage Conflict at Solution Tree.

One school, where I was principal, had an attendance policy that said, if the student missed a certain number of days they would not receive credit.  If they were failing too many classes we would kick them out of school. Then, I worked with a student who had been kicked out of his house, was living in a car, brushing his teeth at a soda machine, and working so he could eat.  I think the kid deserved a medal, not to be shunned by our school. Because of this we started a ‘Beat the Odds Award’ given out at our spring awards assembly.

There are people and families dealing with unimaginable barriers, even more during the COVID 19 crisis.  Maybe there is another way to look at troubling issues.  Maybe some of the problems are polarities meaning there are two valuable points of view to consider. Treating polarities as problems lead to more problems.  We need to manage polarities differently so we can leverage knowledge and skills of more people making the whole organization better.  Using strategies that I learned at Polarity Partnerships, we can minimize the downside of each pole and maximize the skills and values of both sides.

In the 90s I read Barry Johnson’s book titled Polarity Management. Barry’s work helped me reframe problems to solve and when the issue was a polarity to manage.  When writing my newest book, I included dealing with polarities as one of the strategies.  This led me to to update my knowledge, skills, and applications for working with leaders.

First, determine whether you are working with a problem to solve (either/or) and the alternative (both/and) where you need both poles working at their highest level to increase success for your organization.  An example from working with schools:

The school had a high number of experienced staff retiring.  The school hired a high number of new teachers to replace those who were retiring and to add staff for new curriculum initiatives.  Bringing new staff into an existing organization can create conflict. When new people come into the group, existing staff might be cautious to see if trust can be built.  A leader’s job is to keep the focus on the goal of the organization, LEARNING. To build trust, increase collaboration, and to create the conditions where there is psychological safety involves using all the talent available to increase adult and student learning. See Amy Edmondson’s (2019) work for more on psychological safety.

As leaders, please do not employ the “Bo Peep” style of leadership.  ‘Leave them alone and they will come home.’  Leaders are critical in building effective learning environments.  Treating the change of employees as a problem can create more problems. If we treat this as a polarity to leverage, we can get the best of both experienced staff and those new to the organization while limiting the downsides of both groups.

Here is a simplified example for a school.  To use the process for an effective description with action steps would involve a more complete document.


Highest Goal:  High collaboration sharing repertoire for learning

Values of Experienced Staff                                        Values of Newer Staff

Experience with programs & Assessment                  Wants to learn new ways of teaching

Political Savvy                                                             Likes new challenges

Relationships to the community                                Is comfortable with new technology


Fears of only having Experienced Staff                      Fears of only having newer Staff

May not be as willing to coach/advise activities        Saying ‘yes’ to too many things

Attracted to status quo                                              Try things without seeing consequences

Do my own thing, it always worked before               Feeling rejected by current system

Worse Outcome:  Fragmented and isolated staff


So, leadership should be focused on staying in the top part of this organizer, on both sides, to get the best of both groups.  Of course, there are people in the middle of their careers as well.  Developing leadership of mid-career people will be critical for smoother transitions.

Leaders also must monitor when the organization slips into the lower half.  One of the strategies is to move diagonally.  If, for instance, the group moves to the lower right, leadership needs to help move to the upper left and vis-a-versa (lower left to upper right) to help correct possible more negative consequences.

Leveraging Polarities has many possibilities.  Think about the following polarities where both are important and picking one side is NOT the answer.  You can think about polarities in your own organization. Here are some of the more common polarities:

  • Individual and Group
  • Content and Process
  • Centralization and Decentralization
  • Short term and Long term
  • Task and Relationship
  • New Technology and Existing Technology
  • Espoused Theory and Theory in Action

As we incorporate Leveraging Polarities into our repertoire of working with people, more options and possibilities open up  We can shift win/lose, when appropriate, to getting the best of both worlds for better results for our organizations and the people we serve.

Try it, you will like it.


Edmondson, Amy. (2019). The Fearless Organization. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

Johnson, Barry.  (1992).  Polarity management.  Amherst, MA:  HRD Press, Inc.

Sommers, William. (2020). Responding to Resistance: 30 Ways to Manage Conflict.          Bloomington, IN:  Solution Tree.


Shift Happens. If you don't adopt New Rules, drop the "f" in Shift!