Maybe you've noticed, but politics has gotten pretty divisive lately--figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have become lightning rods for argument. And the polarization has seeped into work, too. There is an enormous risk of split teams that can't reconcile, and leaders who take sides can make it impossible to heal.

Why polarizing people ruffle feathers


As Roxanne Bauer explains, the theory of cognitive dissonance from Leon Festinger says we don't like to have conflicting ideas mainly because it makes it tons harder to make a decision, and because it requires us to face the music about what's not so great about ourselves. So we normally deal with the dissonance we're exposed to with mental tricks (e.g., denial, rationalization, willful ignorance).

But people like Ocasio-Cortez have a way of exposing the cognitive dissonances we have.

They have their own clear beliefs and values of steel.

They challenge how we've done things or why we do them at all.

And most of the time, we can't handle it.

We dig deeper into our denial. Our rationalizations. Our willful ignorance.

Clear sides emerge.

Compromise, trust, negotiation and innovation through collaboration all go out the window.

Getting control of the split


In an article for Beyond Intractability, Michelle Maiese outlines how polarization worsens, as well as a few strategies to manage it. She points out that escalation appears to increase polarization--people will push moderates to take a stand for one group or the other more passionately as the conflict gets hotter. To prevent this escalation,

  • Talk about the problem informally when emotions aren't running hot.
  • Have more one-on-one or small group discussions so it's easier to shift gears and address the shifting mood in the room.
  • Discuss the issue in short, digestible bursts.
  • Ensure each individual has a chance to be heard so the polarizing individual does not intentionally or unintentionally dominate the conversation.

Diversity matters, too. The more homogeneous and cohesive the group is, the more likely it is that people in the group will reinforce each other and close up to alternative points of view.

  • Encourage people from different departments or teams to work together on different projects to expose everyone to a greater range of backgrounds and ways of thinking.
  • Invite in a full range of guest speakers and experts who can provide fresh information and anecdotes.
  • Have team members go out into the community to interact with other groups and hear/see their experiences.
  • Adhere to hiring practices that ensure new workers come from all walks of life.

You also must consider the concept of identity. When one group feels that the other is threatening their legitimacy, they use their sense of identity to pull supporters together. They paint a picture of their opponents as a threat to the values, interests and wellbeing of their group.

  • Use inclusive language rather than "they" or "them".
  • Point out commonalities, as well as how members of both groups have contributed to your goals and supported each other over time.
  • Incorporate trust building exercises and social activities into everyday work to build the belief that everyone is dependable and safe.

As additional strategies,

  • Ask people first what they know factually about the issue, rather than what their opinion is. This lets you see where there might be informational gaps, misinformation or misconceptions before you dive into talking about how everyone feels. It gives huge clues about why particular emotions might be bubbling to the surface.
  • Politely request sources for assertions when possible. Rather than simply saying a source is not viable, explain why it concerns you or hasn't earned your trust.
  • Have an open, clear discussion about the environment and culture to put the issue in full context.
  • Stress the need to move forward together instead of asking what side people are on.
  • Bring in formal moderators who can bring a neutral assessment to the issue.
  • Ask people for their stories or insights within the reasonable limits of privacy. Humanizing experiences is a powerful way to get others to increase their empathy and stop seeing the other group as the enemy.
  • Identify the pros and cons of each viewpoint as objectively as possible. Discuss how those align or conflict with the vision, mission and ethics of the business. Help those at all levels understand how each pro or con would affect their everyday work and wellbeing. Work together to establish specific next steps based on the discussion.


Remember, polarizing people by themselves are not bad. They are simply catalysts--the issues they bring up usually are simmering under the surface for weeks, months or even years before they come along, as  Mark Leibovich points out in The New York Times.

Some individuals also say that polarizing people get ahead more easily. They stand out from others and get noticed, which increases the odds they move up the ranks or get offers.

And sometimes, taking a side even can be part of a brand's competitive strategy. Consider Miracle Whip and mayonnaise, for example.

So the objective isn't necessarily or always to eliminate polarization completely so much as it is to prevent a disruptive lack of civility. It's possible to hold a distinct belief and still respect others for what you share. Keep that concept at the forefront at you'll never be stuck.