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Reflections: Understanding my neighbor

Seeing polarities
By Mary Tuuk

Have you ever been frustrated by a disagreement? Have you ever put yourself in the shoes of someone with an opinion opposed to yours to better understand where they are coming from? Have you ever implemented a solution to a problem only to feel later that you overreacted and had to adjust your solution? Have you ever said that the organization of which you are a part moves from one strategy extreme to the other or keeps dancing to the strategy of the month?

These are all examples of elements common to the concept of polarities as explained by Barry Johnson in his book Polarity Management. A polarity model lays out two dimensions in a four quadrant methodology and details how complex problems can be analyzed and managed within that context. Fundamental to the model is viewing situations as continual shifts from one quadrant to the other—shifts that must be managed—as opposed to problems that must be solved. The model also explains why opposite perspectives on an issue always exist in a fashion that is not solvable, but only different on the polarity continuum.

The economic crisis was fraught with examples of polarities, including: the individual vs. society, short-term vs. long-term thinking, competition vs. collaboration and entitlement vs. accountability. If one understands the concept of a polarity, it becomes much easier to understand the various contributing factors to the economic crisis and how it unfolded.

I would observe that early in the economic crisis many were eager to assign blame to a particular constituency. However, within the context of a polarity model, each constituency contributed to the crisis:

  • Consumers often borrowed beyond their means with a view of entitlement, without regard to longer-term changes in economic outlook that could affect the value of their homes or their ability to repay their debt.
  • Financial institutions engaged in riskier and riskier lending practices in an effort to garner greater short-term earnings and to meet desires of consumers.
  • Our government encouraged its regulatory agencies to ensure that banks expanded their lending practices; government agencies bought back high-risk mortgages from lending institutions to support home ownership.
  • Wall Street found new ways to package mortgages into complex,structured products and, in doing so, realized additional profits without a true understanding of the risks of those mortgages.

All of these practices led, over the last few years, to a breakdown of immense proportions. With that breakdown, increased focus is now being given to societal solutions versus individual solutions. Every constituency is feeling accountability for contributing to the crisis, and talk of solutions usually centers on the long term. It is popular to solve problems in a more collaborative fashion.

However, we should recognize this shift in focus as merely a journey across a polarity continuum. For as much as we implement solutions today, inevitably the future will bring with it additional perspectives and shifts in policy. This shift is an example of polarities at work, as one side of the polarity does not represent an absolute solution.

So how does this concept of polarities mesh with our Christian beliefs, in which certain principles are absolute? The polarity paradigm suggests that certain trends are trends to be managed and not solved and that one can be a more effective leader and manager by recognizing the difference. However, our Christian beliefs are foundational; our beliefs represent solutions to a large problem that would otherwise sabotage our mission and purpose in this world. There is no polarity paradigm at work in our Christian faith, since the problem and solution are easily identified.

Questions for reflection:

  • What are examples of polarities in my life?
  • What are further examples of faith tenets that are not subject to the polarity paradigm?

—Mary E. Tuuk, Class of 1986, Executive Vice President and Chief Risk Officer, Fifth Third Bancorp

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