Either-or, us or them: the perils of polarisation

Growing polarisation

Is it just me, or are we seeing – and living – increasing polarisation and splitting in our world?  More individuals, leaders, teams and groupings of all kinds clearly and definitively taking one position or another.  Inherent in that position-taking seems to be a total, blanket exclusion of anything that’s not that position, and – worse – some sort of implicit or explicit condemnation of the excluded position.


How it shows up – and what it leads to

A polarised position is characterised by a certainty.  Boundaries are created (perhaps social, perhaps psychological, perhaps philosophical, perhaps political) which become increasingly strong, rigid and immovable with the passage of time and the reinforcement of the conviction of being right. In these contexts I notice a lack of critical, objective thinking and of curious enquiry, which includes a tendency to swallow certain messages whole and unquestioningly, and a parallel tendency to dismiss reality when it presents unpalatable truths or even incontrovertible facts.  One ‘side’ is split off from the other by a stubborn blindness.  The pressure to conform to the stance and behaviour of the ‘right’ group is so great that there is a threat of being excluded if one fails to comply – and exclusion can be an existential threat.

Connected to that, the whole picture may be interwoven with a sense of vulnerability and the urge to do whatever it takes to overcome that.

Difference from ‘the other’ is reinforced too: the sense of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ morphs gradually (or maybe not so gradually) into ‘I’m good and you’re bad’, which in turn morphs into ‘I’m acceptable and you’re unacceptable’.  This can also move into the idealisation of one’s own leader and the demonisation of the other’s leader.

Stock phrases and social media memes are a feature of polarised behaviour.  Questions, especially incisive questions, aren’t answered directly in order to keep being able to articulate one’s own cherished truth.

Those who take a polarised stance usually don’t recognise it.  Neither are they open to rationalisation, compromise, or any nuancing of belief, so no amount or persuasiveness of data makes any impact.

The impact of polarisation can mean that thinking is rigidified, creativity and innovation are inhibited, reality is obscured, forward momentum is slowed or halted, and relationships are damaged.  On a personal level, this isn’t good news, as the psychological and emotional effects can be deeply felt and very long-lasting.  On a team or at an organisational level it can seriously inhibit effectiveness and flourishing: it can lead to low retention rates, a disincentive to collaborate, a lack of innovation, friction within teams, and low levels of motivation.  On a political level it can lead to movements and groupings which – especially when nourished by the iterations inherent in social media – can be powerful and even ultimately dangerous.


Where does polarisation come from?

Is it to do with a sense of belonging – wanting to be seen to align unequivocally with a particular stance, and thus acquire a comforting sense of belonging, even if it means having to conform with things you don’t really believe in?  Is it about fear of being powerless in the face of a threat or perceived threat, including a threat to one’s own power? Is it a working out of previous frustrations in an unrelated situation?

The adoption of a polarised position may come from an attempt to recreate the past and thus achieve a different outcome – a past which may well not be evident to those involved in the polarised behaviour: maybe a regret about having complied or colluded with a stance on an unrelated subject which one now experiences as a cause for shame, maybe a sense of alienation or long-held resentment about a completely separate matter such as a badly-handled team restructuring, maybe a single disappointing but key relationship in the past.

Equally, a polarised stance may come from profound differences in life philosophy and a visceral unwillingness to consider or empathise with other viewpoints.


What can be done?

My natural inclination in contexts of polarisation is to seek dialogue.  Bill Isaacs, in his book ‘Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together’[1] defines dialogue as ‘a shared enquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together…. a conversation in which people think together in relationship’, in a way which stimulates insight.

It can be very difficult for a person taking a polarised position to engage in dialogue because they come from a conviction of already being right rather than seeking collaborative thinking which can offer them learning if they are willing to open their minds to unfamiliar and unwanted perspectives.

Two tripwires (and there are others) in the quest to engage with polarisation are the very human conviction that one is oneself not polarised, and the uncomfortable necessity to examine one’s own thinking and behaviour, and thus deepen one’s own self awareness, honestly and courageously.



[1] ‘Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together’ 1999, Doubleday


Photo by Hal Cooks on Unsplash


I am indebted to Keri Phillips for insights which have informed some of the above.  Keri sadly passed away in 2023.  See an obituary here





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

« Back to Blog

Join Me

Click here to receive the occasional interesting e-mail

Click here to receive my free report for coaching sponsors:
Evaluating coaching

Click here for my free report for coaching clients:
How to choose the right coach

Get In Touch

You can call Lindsay on
+44/0 20 7112 7001 or
click to send her a message