AND: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma

Barry Johnson. (2020). And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma.

Volume One.  Sacramento, CA:  Polarity Partnerships.

I will admit upfront that this summary does not do justice to this book.  Barry Johnson and Polarity Partnerships have produced great information and detailed examples of this process. I hope this summary causes you to buy the book, and even more, use the process to honor differences and leverage those difference for a better world.

I recently posted a New Rule called ‘The Tyranny of OR and the Possibilities of AND.  This book helps explain the differences of polarities and problems.  In workshops I use the following examples.  As a high school principal we had 350 parking spaces for students.  700 students wanted a parking permit.  This is a problem to solve.  I held a lottery, draw names, and 350 students (and parents) were upset.  Problem solved.  We can’t build more parking spaces.  Yes, we do have those big yellow things called buses serving our school.

The example I use for polarities is we have a high number of staff retiring.  We recruit, interview, and hire a number of new teachers to our school.  Some are new to teaching and some new to our district.  The answer isn’t to get rid of the more experienced teachers because the less experienced teacher use more technology, etc.  The answer isn’t to stop hiring new teacher without a lot of experience.  The answer is to leverage the strengths and skills of both.  We are a better school when we leverage strengths rather than eliminate one pole.  Over reliance on one side or the other of a polarity usually causes trouble in the future.

Barry Johnson has updated the information and the graphics from his book Polarity Management in the 90s.  The change in term to ‘leveraging’ is a much better description of this process and what it can do when two good alternatives exist. Leveraging the best of two points of view can lead to better decisions, being more inclusive of diverse people and ideas, and lead to stronger organizations.

For more information, training, and applications contact Leslie DePol or Bob Tauber at  When you read this book, you will find a wide range of applications to business, education, and nonprofit institutions. Here are a few of the many organizing principles identified in the book.

This book is timely because hard lines have been drawn in many areas of our lives.  To give a simple example. think about activity and rest.  If you only do activity without rest, your mind and body can get exhausted and shut down.  If you only do rest, assuming no biological or physical ailment, your body could atrophy from lack of use.  Yes, there is something to be said, ‘use it or lose it.’  This can apply to the body and the mind.

Later in the book, there is a polarity example of working independently and working in collaboration.  One example in particular got my attention. ‘Black Lives Matter’ AND ‘All Lives Matter.’  Some white people (yes, that includes me) view the idea of ‘Black Lives Matter’ as ‘Only Black Lives Matter.’ (That is not me). This issue is timely for our communities and country to use the strengths of everybody. What has worked in the past might now work as well in the future. Some things work for some of us and not for all of us. Does anybody really think we will be less diverse in 2021?

I will be posting a few more resources about Social Justice in the weeks to come. I just finished ‘Beyond Ally’ and was very impressed. In the meantime you can access previous posts on ‘How to be an Antiracist, White Fragility, and Inclusify at See the references at the end of this summary.

Trying to handle a polarity with a problem solving strategy usually doesn’t work.  If both sides are valid, we have to leverage the best of both. So, think of polarities as an option when facing what you think is a problem. It might be a polarity.  The first requirement is to determine if the two poles are interdependent.  Breathing is a good metaphor.  If you get an “A” in inhaling but an “F” in exhaling, your breathing average is “C” and you will die.  You need both.

The second attribute to assess is the issue ongoing.  Do we keep trying to solve the same problem year after year.  In schools, start times comes to mind.  Every year I heard, “if the high school would start a little earlier we would solve the busing problem.”  When I first came to a high school we started at 8:00 am.  After a few years we were starting at 7:15 am with zero hour starting at 6:30 am.  Really? We should have, and could have, thought about this differently. High school age students live by circadian rhythms and don’t get active until later in the morning.  Elementary kids, at least mine, are ready to go at 6:00 am.

The Why. We recognize that our individual quality of life is tied, inseparably, with the quality of life of everyone else.  Differentiating one thing from another is also the beginning of language. And-thinking is a supplement to Or-thinking, not a replacement. And-thinking is useful when you are dealing with issues for which Or is a false choice. As a parent, should I love my children unconditionally Or hold them accountable for their actions? I hope we all believe both are important.

The What. If the polarization is over a polarity, not only are both sides “right,’ they both need each other’s wisdom to be successful over time. What Are Polarities? They are energy systems that we can leverage. Activity And Rest the word “And’ between them; and the infinity loop that represents the natural flow of energy within all polarities.

The How.  Here is an overview of the process. Regardless of the size of the system that you want to change, this book guides you through a clear process: SMALL

  1. Seeing: Is this an issue where And is required?
  2. Mapping: How can I see a more complete picture and respect alternative views?
  3. Assessing: How are we doing with this polarity?
  4. Learning: What can we learn from our assessment results.
  5. Leveraging: What action steps will we take to make a positive difference?


Detailed description of the process is fully explained in the book with many more specific examples. Another reason I like this book is that it helps identify our values.  We stand up for what matters to us.  Leading through our values will help our organizations to be better at understanding motivation, the importance of equity, and save time.


By identifying our values and strengths of both poles and then identifying what fears we might have provides balance.  Many times our fears are grounded in what we are afraid of losing if we acquiesce to the other pole.  In fact, using strengths from both sides helps the organizations be more resilient and have a more repertoire to deal with differences of opinion. The stronger the value, the stronger the fear.

Making polarity maps in public helps surface unconscious biases especially in equity work, Unconscious bias leads to microaggressions which are evident to the person on the receiving end and not apparent to the person delivering the message.  Making the unconscious conscious is the first step is managing differences.

What I have learn from my coaching and brain research is that if an issue is not conscious and in the working memory, I can’t mediate it from the outside. It is hard to change behaviors. See Duhigg (2012) The Power of Habit for a strategy to change habits.

Another part of the new polarity map is the addition of adding action steps to increase the use of our strengths.  The research on positivity from Barbara Fredrickson (2009) states we need a 3:1 ratio to move forward.  A 1:1 ratio is not enough.  Most of us give more weight to negative comments than positive ones.  (At least I do)

The next part of the graphic identifies Early Warning Signs.  This is formative assessment in educationese.  Hopefully, when you see early warnings, you can change the direction before it is too late.  Last year’s sales, state date in May, and new problems are usually lagging indicators.  We want leading indicators so we can make intelligent midcourse adjustments.

Sometimes we get stuck in systems and procedures.  Here is a suggestion of getting Unstuck.  I paraphrase:

  • Seek out what Value is being held by people. Listen to those who are resisting and seek ways to help get to the goal everyone wants.
  • Once we identify and affirm the values, we can look at barriers. Then focus on building a bridge to accomplish the goal. This will help reduce the fear of losing sight of a strongly held value by the other pole.
  • The question becomes, “How might we get include each side to accomplish the Greater Purpose and move forward?”

The fear of those “Holding On” is that to join us in the transformation we are going after requires them to give up what they value. That is why, in any transformation effort, it is essential to first make sure we hear and respect their values and fears and to let them know that you are not asking them to let go of their point of view. That is why the first two steps in the process is focused on their point of view.

Most people want stability in their life.  They also understand that change is going to happen.  I certainly didn’t see the reliance on technology in 1970.  So, how do we deal with the need for STABILITY AND CHANGE?  I suggest following the AND PROCESS for yourself, your small group, and/or the whole company.  This is another polarity, the PART AND the WHOLE.

Johnson identifies Six Ways Polarities Show Up

  1. Polarities Emerge as a Value or Set of Values.
  2. Polarities Show Up as Resistance Based on a Fear of Something that Could Happen.
  3. Polarities Show Up as One or More Action Steps.
  4. Polarities Show Up as a Complaint or a Complaint Combined with a Solution.
  5. Polarities Show Up as a Vision or Dream for a Preferred Future.
  6. Polarities Show Up as a Conflict.

Here are four questions to help determine whether or not you are in a polarity situation.

  1. Is the issue ongoing, like breathing?
  2. Is there an interdependence between two alternatives such that if we choose one alternative for the moment, we will be required to include the other at some point in the future?
  3. Is it necessary over time to have both identified upsides?
  4. Will focusing on one upside to the neglect of the other eventually undermine your efforts to move toward your Greater Purpose.

Again, this book offers one of the best ways I have seen to leverage differences by honoring both perspectives.  Once Action Steps are in place, people have a clear pathway for behaviors to get to the greater purpose.  The Early Warnings provide trip wires to get our attention when results are not what we want.

My suggestion is add this process to your repertoire of processes to become a better person, collaborator, and leader.  Become attentive to noticing if you are dealing with a problem or a polarity.  Many businesses are using this strategy.  I believe it is time for educators to learn this process as we deal with learning issues ahead of us.  ‘AND’ honors points of view, makes the unconscious visible, and creates pathways to make life better for people.  That is what I want. I hope you do too.


Duhigg, Charles. (2012). The Power of Habit.  New York:  Random House

Fredrickson, Barbara. (2009). Positivity. New York:  Crown