I recently gave a talk at Agile Australia with fellow coach Andrew Francois. When we co-deliver like this we often joke that "The Andrews" are interchangeable, and yet it's not true, we're very different:
He's incredibly funny, I'm not, I tend to be on the more serious side.
He's very creative with words, I tend to express myself more visually.
He's naturally great at connecting with others, that's more of stretch for me, I tend to focus more naturally within.
If we're so different, how do we make it work?
No, we don't balance each other out, and we don't compromise. He doesn't try to make me more funny, and I don't try to make him more serious. We have complimentary strengths and an open mind, so we put ego to one side, take the best from each other's strengths and input and leave the rest.
This is the spirit of Integration.
Sounds easy right? It's not. Working with those who have different values, strengths and approaches than our own can be very confronting. So confronting it often leads to tension, arguments and even conflict. But they're just ideas! Surely they're not worth getting upset over, right? And yet, we humans do, daily. Which is why, if you're not able to achieve integration, then the most likely outcome is... the dreaded Polarisation!
You've probably heard people say "the world is more polarised than ever before", and they'd be right. But...
What does polarisation even mean?
To explain polarisation, we need to go back. Waay back...
Once upon a time, we lived in tribes. Sometimes there was disagreement within the tribe. Sometimes there was even conflict. But it was short-lived. See, within an early tribal setting, whoever had the biggest stick, won.
Then everyone else just went along with whatever the person wielding the stick said.
Over time, our sticks evolved. They became less literal, and more conceptual. We moved from a social system based upon a simple dominance hierarchy to more complex nested orders including virtue hierarchies and growth hierarchies. Think "I'm the top of the pyramid because I donate the most to charity", or "because I know the most about science / religion / playing guitar while wearing spandex".
Sometimes the complexity and confusion around these overlapping hierarchies led to splits in the tribe, for example the guitar-players believed their hierarchy was more important than the dominance hierarchy, things were said, egos were bruised and their differences couldn't be resolved.
That was ok. There was plenty of space, so a tribe would split into two tribes and they went their separate ways. Sometimes they would squabble over who gets control of what land, but usually those who topped the dominance hierarchy would win there. After all, straight up physical coercion was their wheelhouse. The guitar players didn't mind, they picked up their guitars and moved on.
This approach to conflict resolution is seen even in pack animals, so it's safe to say we have been taking this approach for millions of years of our evolution.
You could say we’re hardwired by evolution to:
Group together with like-minded people, who we know we can trust and predict to operate in ways similar to Us.
Fear those who think differently, and catastrophise fearing Them, assuming to live side-by-side with them would be fatal. Which was a fair assumption back then, because for millions of years of dominance hierarchies, it very much could have been fatal.
Lean harder into our beliefs in reaction to their beliefs—e.g. If Lefties are wrong and bad, then I can be right and good by leaning even further Right.
Escalate to the point of conflict, or avoid conflict by splitting and spreading out—It is assumed this urge to split typically happens in tribes larger than 150 people, aka Dunbar's Number.
These 4 (now) instinctual behaviours could be called the definition of 'polarisation'. This is why it's common wisdom to not talk about politics or religion, as these topics are significant enough to reliably incite this cascade of behaviour. And yet back then, these 4 behaviours served us very well, they kept us safe, reproducing, even thriving. So the cycle continued, we split and reproduced, then split and reproduced some more. We did this so many times, all the empty land was filled. (Or at least all the best land was). Then the problems really began...
“Us VS Them” was born
From that moment on, we could no longer just have a difference of opinion and move on. We had to continue to live side-by-side with people who’s values and beliefs were very different to our own. Terrifying!
This only really started around 12,000 years ago when we largely started to transition from living as nomadic tribes to settling into larger and larger villages, towns and eventually cities. We found ways to stretch the bounds of Dunbar's Number through the pillars of civilisation including government, laws, and a justice system. And yet these systems don't stop the tension of polarisation, just manage it the best they can while allowing smaller tribes to pop-up within the broader community. Now 12,000 years may seem like a long time and yet on an evolutionary scale, it's nothing. It's also worth nothing that evolution won't remove a trait unless it turns out to be fatal, and this urge to polarise hasn't wiped us out, yet.
But it might...
Enter, the Global Society
Our access and visibility to each other around the world, sheer population density, and need to agree on shared global issues has increased dramatically over the past 50 years. The Internet has a lot to answer for here. And interestingly, online social networks have started to act like little tribes of their own. They foster groups of like-minded people to come together, express their shared beliefs, values and viewpoints and validate each other in even extreme positions. This all has only added considerable pressure to the very natural, very human urge to polarise.
Has this increased the sheer volume of stress, fear, and conflict in the world? Yes, of course it has.
Has this allowed extreme perspectives to gain momentum and become considered mainstream in places? Yep.
Could this even lead to wars? Absolutely it could. And it has. For example, ummm, every war ever.
Once you become aware of polarisation, you start to see it everywhere.
Here are some great polarities for leaders to consider:
Confidence (i.e. Backing yourself) + Humility (i.e. Not arrogant)
Truth (i.e. Being direct and real, setting boundaries) + Compassion (i.e. Being nice and softening the news)
Wholehearted (i.e. Passionate and committed) + Detached (i.e. Not investing your identity into it)
Masculine (i.e. Push, strive, compete) + Feminine (i.e. Nurture, flow receive)
Sovereignty (aka Individual rights, freedom and responsibility) + Oneness (aka connection and "the greater good")
Over time, with continued awareness, you start to feel it everywhere.
What does polarisation feel like?
A paradox, or cognitive dissonance. There's a feeling of tension, like both ends of the spectrum can't coexist.
A preference emerging. There's usually a feeling of being drawn to one side more than the other.
A passionate perspective. There's often a fire from within, like we are getting ready to fight for our position.
An upsetting offence. Many times we will find what the other person is saying offensive or distasteful and we end up 'triggered'.
But how does this affect me?
The challenge with polarisation is it reduces the number of options available to us.
Hence by definition it is disempowering (of ourselves, and others).
For example: People who pride themselves on being nice and caring for others often have an almost allergic reaction to setting clear boundaries. This can lead to them feeling like they get taken advantage of and walked over by people (i.e. they feel like a doormat). But they would never want to be seen as harsh or mean, so they struggle to set much needed boundaries with others. They now have only one option, continue to be a doormat. You can see how disempowering that is.
Example the second: Someone who's big on individual freedom and responsibility will likely struggle with any policy or group that supports people who don't seem to be helping themselves. And yet, sometimes that's what's needed. In fact, sometimes they may need that support themselves and yet they're not likely to take it because it doesn't align with their value of individual responsibility.
Our final example: People who are big on humility will often suffer with confidence issues because they have an aversion to 'arrogant a**holes'. Whether they realise it or not, they come across as uncertain, shy, or second-guessing their choice of words when asked to talk about their achievements, abilities, and usually most other topics. They never want to appear arrogant, so they try to never be too confident, too certain, or too strong in their position. I've even met many who view self-doubt as virtue and equate it with open-minded humility, yet ultimately it saboutages their ability to be taken seriously, succeed, and get what they want in life.
Now perhaps counter-intuitively, the answer to these and other examples is rarely 'balance' or 'compromise'. Balance and compromise are often the go-to solutions because they are easy, but they fail to take the best of anything, instead delivering luke-warm results where no one gets what they truly want or need.
🙌 There is a time and place for individual responsibility AND a time and place for supporting those in need.
🙌 There is a way to establish and defend your boundaries AND do it nicely.
And yet, these integrations are not easy to find and hold.
Why so serious?
Why am I so serious then, when my colleague Andrew is so funny?
Why is it so hard to integrate these polarities?
Because our tendencies towards one side of a polarity or the other were conditioned into us from an early age. For most of us that's decades ago—these preferences run deep!
Which means whether we run towards our default pole, rebel to the other side or rise up and find the integration isn't something we can always consciously choose in the moment. It's most often automatically chosen for us by our subconscious, especially when we're under pressure. And conversations involving polarities like this will ramp up the pressure immediately and immensely.
Changing our default polarity preferences, opening our minds and hearts to all perspectives and shifting our default behaviour under pressure take time and professional support. Reach out if you'd like to start your journey towards becoming a master integrator by default.
The rewards of doing so are significant. And the world will thank you.
Enter the master integrators
By becoming a master integrator you will immediately open up many more options in every scenario of your life—aka maximum self-empowerment. For example, if you're not enjoying your work/boss/team then a polarised person will see one or two options: Suck it up and stay, or quit and go elsewhere. An integrator won't just jump to the poles, they will see a world of options between and above, including talking to the people they aren't vibing with, talking to HR, or others in the org, leveraging their network within the org to find a better fit elsewhere, taking leave, the possible options go on and on.
Being able to see ALL the options also gives you a way to find win-win solutions more easily, which in turn means your ability to influence and persuade others will skyrocket.
On top of all of this, you'll just plain feel better more of the time. Polarisation and feeling triggered, frustrated and stressed go hand-in-hand. This comes back to that evolutionary wiring, where those who think differently could be a physical threat. Once you become a master integrator you won't feel that stress or frustration nearly as often. Which in turn allows you to hold the space for bigger and more challenging conversations, increasing your capacity as a leader, and your ability to make a bigger impact.
And if you so choose, you can take that ability as far as you like. Heck, the world dearly needs more master integrators. It's the only way we'll solve some of the greater challenges of our global society. And as I say, the world will thank you.