Collaboration Is the Remedy for Polarization


Polarization creates "win-lose"


Polarization keeps us apart, disconnected. Polarization keeps us from finding creative solutions that benefit all.

There is no winning in polarization. There is only “win-lose.”

Leadership is about bringing people together, unifying around a common vision. It is about creating community.

“Leadership is the wise use of power. Power is the capacity to translate intention into reality and sustain it.” ~Warren Bennis

Unifying people against a common enemy is an immoral use of power. This is what Hitler did — he led his people right over a cliff.

When we are filled with hatred and disrespect, we can only square off in opposite camps. We might negotiate agreements, but each side walks away feeling like they lost more than they gained.

Do not be pulled so strongly toward a pole that you become unbalanced.

It is only through dialogue and surfacing our common concerns, hopes and dreams that we can find solutions that satisfy what is most fundamentally important. Dialogue is about discussion with the intent to understand – not debate with the intent to win.

Move away from the pole and listen. If you are so absolutely certain you’re right that you can’t even listen to another view, you’re probably wrong. If we only discuss issues with people who agree with us, we stop learning and become self-righteous.

You might not be able to have it all, but you can have what you most deeply desire, when you are clear about what you really want.

Collaboration is the remedy for polarization.

Collaboration is not about giving up your individuality. In fact, successful collaboration depends on speaking clearly and honesty about what you stand for. Collaboration is about valuing and mobilizing diversity as a force toward the common good. It is about recognizing and respecting the humanity in each individual, even those who are stuck at a pole.

Finding common ground does not mean giving up what you care about. It means letting go of some of your ideas about what will get you there and considering the possibility there may be another solution. It means respecting the people who see things differently, rather than assuming a superior attitude and dismissing them as evil, crazy, or out of touch with reality.

Collaborative leadership is based on respect, trust and the wise use of power.

Distrust will not create trust. Hatred will not breed respect. Violence will not protect us from violence.

“Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

During his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr cautioned us:

“In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrong deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.

Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.”

“Their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

We are all in this together. If you are stuck at a pole blaming “them” for being unreasonable, remember that in the view from the other side of the pole, you are “them.” You have a choice. You can continue the never-ending cycle of polarization. Or you can decide to stop following leaders who are misusing their power – and decide it is time to engage in sincere, respectful dialogue.

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43 comments to Collaboration Is the Remedy for Polarization

  • Timothy Williamson

    Part of the problem is that people tend to associate with like minded people. This re-enforces the same ideas and concepts, but does not introduce diversity of thought and opinion into the group. These types of associations tend to seek out only those other people, ideas, and supporting theories that provide the “proof” that the orginal thought was correct. It’s self-defeating and internally circular. It’s destructive to the survivability and sustainability of the group.
    What are these types of groups? They are bubbles in a very real sense. What happens to bubbles that do not adapt, change, evolve and innovate over time? Bubbles collapse eventually.

    Here’s my presentation on Human Complexity – Creating Sustainable Local Growth at

  • “Finding common ground does not mean giving up what you care about.”

    I really like that line. Compromise is a word and action that has now been painted with selling out, rather than seen as an action that moves you forward to winning. I guess the trick is how do we show people that when you collaborate, you are not giving up anything, but are in fact gaining something.

    • I think we need to show people what the difference is between compromise and collaborative problem solving. Unfortunately most people think they mean the same thing. Compromises means that each side gives up something in order to achieve a fair solution. Unfortunately the term “collaborative divorce” has not helped clarify the difference because usually it means “bargaining.” Collaborative problem solving means finding a creative new solution in which everyone benefits. Unfortunately though, when large numbers of people are involved in finding a collaborative solution, there will be a few people who are absolutely stuck at a pole who will not be able see it as beneficial. In the end, they will be left behind and eventually become “boiled frogs.” We do have a choice in who we follow. If leaders are not seeking collaborative solutions, we can choose not to follow them. This could be union leaders who are willing to let the company go under, politicians who are willing to make decisions that are not in the interest of the common good or leaders of lobbying groups that use scare tactics to keep the support of their constituents. Collaborating does not mean letting go of what you stand for. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. Ghandi, and H.H. Dalai Lama have shown us that.

  • “Vision is a lot more than putting a plaque on the wall. A real vision is lived, not framed.” I read that once in a book. What was the name of it? Oh yeah, Full Steam Ahead. :) Another way to put it would be to say that a vision needs to be off the wall, but I like your version better.
    There are a lot of gems in this post. Thank you for your wise insights on leadership and practical guidance on living the vision in community. And at the same time you bring to life a beautiful vision of unity and collaboration.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words and feedback, Daniel. I did bury several nuggets in this post that could take you in various directions, depending on where you are. As I continue on my own journey, I am gaining a deeper understanding of the inter-relatioship between vision, collaboration, and community and the importance of diversity and individuality. I think your idea that vision needs to be “off the wall” is on target. It is our nature as human beings to desire order and continuity. But it is not the nature of nature.

  • This is an excellent commentary and cogent series of observations. In Ms. Stoner’s willingness to acknowledge there’s another side to each debate, no mtter how convinced one is of her/his own correctness, I’m reminded of how the Dalai Lama speaks about the Chinese in their often vile treamtent of Tibetans. Though he could condemn them roundly, he refrains from doing so, and actually acts with great magnaminity. I imagine this is one of the things that confounds Chinese authorities about him. All that said, the Tibetans in Tibet are still being oppressed and humiliated by brutal masters, a tragedy, This shows just how challenging and intractable such issues are, whether they are inter-personal or geopolitical.

  • As Daniel writes, “there are a log of gems in this post”. What a timely piece given MLK Day tomorrow and given that collaboration and compromise seem to have fallen out of favor lately (especially in the U.S. Congress). I think it’s important for people to realize that “dialogue” is hard work. Listening for understanding is a skill that most people do not naturally have but can be learned. It takes practice and repetition and a willingness by participants to change the nature of the conversation. We certainly need more of it.

  • Joe Passkiewicz

    Great post. I have seen first hand the damage that occurs when you fail to involve others and decide to go it alone. By neglecting to involve others and choosing polar options, you are sending the other stakeholders the message that they have no value. This can hit some deep wounds that extend far beyond the current discussion. Lack of collaberation can push others to the opposite pole out of anger and fear. Leaders need to be able to see things from the other viewpoint no matter how foreign or distorted that it may seem. Complete unity on issues may not be possible, yet compromise is always possible! Thanks Jesse- excellent as always!

    • Hi Joe. You raise some excellent points – what pushes people to the poles is emotionality – feeling not valued, disrespected, powerless and/or fearful. Leaders who want to keep people at a pole play to these emotions. And as you point out, sometimes leaders unintentionally push people to poles because they act in isolation. All excellent points. You remind me that the only way out is to step back and see the bigger picture from a rational perspective. It would be wonderful if leaders changed their behavior, but if they don’t, can choose to move away from the pole on our own. When we leave the pole and the accompanying fear and anger behind, we are able to see and speak from a more grounded place. Our voice becomes stronger and we are more likely to be heard.

  • It really boils down to attitude. It’s never fun to work against obstacles, and people/organizations that seem to get in the way. However, there are usually several options available to get the job done. We have to, as difficult as it is, check our wants/desires/frustrations and figure out ways to move forward. It’s amazing how often it is that the reason there is an obstacle is the lack of good communication. Thanks for the post!

  • Another great post Jesse.

    I agree with everything you have shared. (I shared something similar recently when I commented on another post yet mine was more firm! :)

    And that is what I would add here. The missing link that most often occurs between act of offense and forgiveness is the genuine sorrow that leads to transformation. (genuine repentance) Now, I agree that we can still have a forgiving heart even if the person who wrongs us never repents. However, that does not mean condoning the acts and enabling people who don’t ‘repent’. Love should always be combined with truth. And in no way does truth mean ‘enabling’ bad behaviors. Especially those that do a great deal of damage to many people if they do not or cannot stop.

    I hope this makes sense.

    Thanks again for sharing another wonderful post.


  • If the end in mind is “I win and you lose”, then collaboration never happens. I was saddened to read that many members of the GOP would not be in DC today because they lost.Collaboration comes when we break bread together… When we work for the common good rather than the good of the uncommon. How I wish every member of Congress would read this post. They are the most visible leaders. Likewise, we as citizens must also look at collaboration in how we share our responsibility for creating a community that works for all.

    Again–thanks Jesse.

    • I’m with you, Eileen. I don’t think we can wait for our political leaders to collaborate. I think some are sincerely interested, but they are blocked because the dynamics are polarizing. I think “we the people” have to start talking with each other, listening to each other, and understanding what we each care deeply about. I think “we the people” need to set our positions and solutions aside temporarily and ask questions of understanding. I think “we the people” need to look at who we are following to determine whether they are really representing our best interest or polarizing us. And I think, as you say so well, we need to take personal responsibility for creating a community that works for all.

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar

    Hi Jesse,

    another great post on the beautiful concept. much to take from it. I feel a need to put an effort to understand this concept of colaboration more deeply. hope to do that soon. Thanks.

    on the side note though, still not able to make myself agree to mr. warren bennis quote. maybe we are talking from different context.

    • Thank you, Gurmeet. I will be interested to hear what you discover when you contemplate this subject some more. On a side note, my guess is that the issue is context and that if you and Mr. Bennis had a conversation, it would be a very interesting and rewarding one for both of you.

  • Good post Jesse. I agree that collaboration is the way to finding creative solutions.

    But it is difficult when polarization becomes a lucrative business model as it has in American politics.

    I am not sure collaboration will be pursued when it is not in one’s business interest to do so. Because of polarization, driven by business and political interests, we are unable to solve some major problems. Not sure if there is an easy solution here.



    • I agree with your observations of the current situation, Jay, and that there is no easy solution. But we make personal choices – we can decide not to support it. So many emails are flying around whose purpose is to alarm us into accepting a certain position. The effect is to further reinforce the entrenchment of those who hold the view and to alienate those who hold a different view. I don’t forward those kinds of emails. I do have strong personal views on a number of subjects. I find it helpful to talk with people who have different views with curiosity and respect, instead of dismissing them. Often I discover there is common ground where we do agree, and sometimes I have changed aspects of my views as a result and at times others have as well.

  • Although our topics more often focus on leadership, this post takes me into the political realm. So many of the things you said relate to and could improve our current political climate if more people embraced the ideas you have so beautifully described. I am particularly drawn to your statement that when we are so convinced we are right that we cannot listen to someone with whose ideas we disagree, we are probably wrong. That is also my struggle, but I try to overcome it.
    Thank you for a very heartfelt and meaningful post.

  • kenia mosquera (@believekenia)

    In my opinion, it is by the knowledge of our own inner self that we acquire balance. Once a being recognizes its own greatness and weaknesses considering itself as a unique piece of the same and a bigger puzzle then it gets easier to accept the other pieces. Therefore, success can be only achieved by collaboration; A big engine composed by many gears in which all of them are equal in importance. Then, the polarization concept doesn’t apply in it. Great post.

  • Taher

    Polarization and most of mindsets are result of lack of understanding of each other and culture/ back ground differences. It is very important to study other cultures and to know what other person’s perspective is. In my opinion and my experience of living with multicultural society, I can affirm that we all as human are same and share same concerns.
    It is very possible to achieve collaboration by respecting other cultures, and this is also one of the element of good leadership.
    Very informative discussion and thanks to all for sharing.
    I hope I was able to conveyed my idea as English is not my language.

  • Yes, polarization prevents people from hearing each other and from seeing that there’s strength in diversity. Unlocking the opportunities requires finding tools and techniques to help people notice what they have in common instead of rushing to defend or attack positions. The folks who study and practice positive deviance know a thing or two about that.

  • Excellent post. You’re right, blame does not create solutions. Opening a dialog to find what we share and how we’re more alike than different is what creates true opportunities for collaboration. I was hit hard by your statement that “violence does not protect us from violence.” I agree. There is always another way.

  • jack skuatt

    Excellent peace!

  • Jesse,

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I read this post when you first published it and have spend several days reflecting, almost responding and then reflecting again. Today I heard a quote that made me think of your post again, “Man has a tendency to see his own position.”

    Throughout the week, I have considered some the most divisive issues in the news today and I keep wondering…
    1. How often do we sit down at a table filled with diverse people and really listen?
    2. How often do we allow others to share their stories and convictions unapologetically and with passion?
    3. How often do we leave those conversations and examine our own hearts and our own motives?
    4. How often do we dive into world history to learn from the past?
    5. How often do we come back to table to share what we’ve learned and seek to better understand?
    6. What would it be like to sit at that table and intentionally look fear (and some squiggly things) in the face and begin to turn each one of those rocks over?

    Imagining all of that feels exciting, then exhausting, then exciting again!

    • These are wonderful questions – for us to contemplate ourselves… and also to bring up when having conversations with those who share our views. They help us get out of a self-imposed box. Thank you so much for sharing them here, Chery.

  • Hi Jesse

    I’m so glad that I read your post. It’s spot on! Real leaders run toward challenges — They care as much about how the challenge is met as in coming up with the optimal solution. They’re not in “business” to score points, but to make a difference.

    Life isn’t a sport where one team wins and the other one loses. It’s about creating opportunities in which everyone walks away a winner. It’s about working hard to build trust, so that everyone looks forward to the next challenge, where they can replicate their success rather than plotting to win the upper hand.

    For that to happen, real leadership is required. As you say, “Leadership is about bringing people together, unifying around a common vision. It’s about creating community.” As you say Jesse, “We’re in this together.”

    This is an important piece. I’m glad you took the time to share your thoughts with us.



    • Love this, Frank. I see another poster in the making: “Life isn’t a sport where one team wins and the other one loses. It’s about creating opportunities in which everyone walks away a winner. It’s about working hard to build trust, so that everyone looks forward to the next challenge, where they can replicate their success rather than plotting to win the upper hand.” Thanks so much for sharing you insights here.

  • Gary S. Moore

    What great points throughout this article. We all have to learn to compromise, so as you said “Move away from the pole and listen. If you are so absolutely certain you’re right that you can’t even listen to another view, you’re probably wrong. If we only discuss issues with people who agree with us, we stop learning and become self-righteous.” So true and yet many of us continually get caught in this web. We often need to be reminded that “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Thanks for article; I’ve already shared on multiple sites.

    • Thanks, Gary. Glad to see that you appreciate this important point. Personally, here’s what I am doing now: I’m really listening to what people with different views have to say – not with the intent to convince them to change, but to better understand their point of view. I’ve discovered that we share many of the same goals and values, and our disagreement is on how to achieve them. Knowing we share the same desired end-goals and the same values, has put us in a better position to have a real discussion, not arguing or debating.

  • Thank you, Jesse, for this wonderful post. Collaboration is indeed the antidote to polarization. I am reminded of William Isaacs great book on dialogue, which he refers to as “the art of thinking together.” As you and others point out, we retain our identities in dialogue, even as we craft ideas, decisions, and actions in collaboration with others. I was also reminded of the excellent book Mutual Gains, by the late Ed Cohen-Rosenthal. It is about union-management collaboration. Ed was the principal advisor to my team at the US Department of Labor, as we created a unique union-management partnership. Ed also emphasized the reality that even in collaboration, parties would not always hold the same view or position. Yet collaboration was the best way forward for all, in adapting to changes in the operating environment.

    • Love this definition of dialogue – “the art of thinking together.” Many people see the “union- management” relationship as necessarily polarized, yet it has been my experience as well that when people get beyond their political agendas, they discover common ground and shared goals that not only make collaboration possible, but actually makes it the only choice to successful “adapt to changes in the operating environment.” As always, appreciate your insights and deepening the conversation, Bruce.

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