Managing Unsolvable Conflicts

 Douglas E. Noll, Esq.

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 March 2002

The conflict was classic.  Management had been emphasizing the importance of teamwork for months.  The employees were chafing under the policy as individual creativeness was discouraged.  Morale declined and the imagination and entrepreneurialism of the past was lost.  A consultant was brought in to make recommendations and after duly studying the issue, said that the company needed to empower its employees.  Soon a new policy of employee empowerment was in place.  Time passed. Morale slowly declined as people tended to look out for themselves.  Management had a sense that there was a lack of overall teamwork.  Another consultant was brought in and, predictably, found that the company needed a strong teamwork policy.  A new policy emphasizing teamwork came into being, which led to the inevitable resentment that individual initiative was being suppressed. This conflict cycled back and forth for years.
The mistake made here and in many conflicts is assuming that all conflicts have solutions.  In fact, some conflicts simply cannot be resolved, and instead must be managed.  Organizational development consultant Barry Johnson ( )calls these conflicts polarities.  His book Polarity Management gives us insight into the nature of insolvable conflicts.

Breathing illustrates the nature of a polarity.  Assume a group is in favor of inhaling.  They advocate inhaling and push inhaling as a solution to the existing problems.  They overcome all opposition and inhaling is adopted as the company policy.   So everyone inhales.  Without too much time passing, people become uncomfortable with continually inhaling; they feel an overriding urge to exhale.  So, advocates of exhaling start to agitate for exhaling.  As a result of the discomfort caused by inhaling, the company changes policy and now advocates exhaling.  So, everyone exhales.  Not surprisingly, not much time passes before discomfort with exhaling appears.  The cycle repeats itself as the company vacillates between one policy, inhaling, and another, exhaling.  Morale drops as the staff become weary and cynical of the company’s constant change in policy as it responds to the downsides of inhaling and exhaling.

 This metaphor describes many conflict issues. Just as the presence of breathing cannot depend solely on inhaling or exhaling, many issues cannot depend on one side of an issue to the exclusion of another.  Just as breathing must be managed to balance inhalation and exhalation, so many conflicts must be balanced between its poles.

 In broad terms, polarities include conflicts between individual and team, critical analysis and encouragement, being clear and being flexible, planning and action, my job and my place, individual responsibility and organizational responsibility, word and deed, stability and change, doing and being, autocratic management and participatory management, centralized control and decentralized control, and stress and tranquility.  Each of these conflicts has two extremes or poles.  Each pole has advantages and disadvantages. Generally speaking, if one pole is emphasized to the exclusion of the other, the result will be to experience the disadvantages of both poles.

Everyone has experienced these polarities and, in many cases, has become frustrated at the lack of success in solving them.  The problem is that polarities cannot be solved.  Instead, they must be managed.  Once this distinction is recognized, dealing with polarities becomes a much easier task.
Good polarity management requires five skills. The first skill requires us to know the difference between a polarity to manage and a problem to solve. Polarities have two attributes.  They are continuous and they consist of oppositional elements.  If a conflict seems to endure and seems to move back and forth between contradictory values, a polarity probably exists.

The second skill is in knowing that there is an upside and downside to each pole. The disadvantages of any pole are usually what happens when the other pole is ignored.  For example, in the individual and team polarity, the downside of individualism is lack of cohesion, inefficiency from lack of coordination and destructive competition.  If teamwork were emphasized, the negatives of individualism would be minimized.

The third skill in polarity management is becoming sensitive to the downsides as they are experienced.  Recognizing polarity problems for what they are—the manifestation of the disadvantages from imbalances between the poles—allows us to take corrective action.  Remember, we cannot solve polarities; we can only manage them.

The fourth skill requires a willingness to shift poles as needed.  People invested in one pole will resist change, while people agitating for the other pole will insist on change.  The opposite energies generated by shifting between poles can be harnessed so that conflict becomes constructive.  Left unmanaged, these energies lead to destructive conflict.

Finally, good polarity management requires us to know how to talk to our opposite and to mediate between opposites. In the individual and teamwork polarity, this means being a good individualist and a good team player and an ability to communicate effectively with both poles.
Johnson has provided a useful tool for understanding conflict dynamics that seem impossible to solve. Polarity management is not the final answer to conflicts, but it can be an important technique for working with continuing disputes.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2002, Douglas E. Noll