Polarity-thinking: how open are we really for different cultural perspecitives?

When working with people from other cultures, we often find ourselves blaming the other culture for being so different.

We tend to compare other cultures to our own. When your work is to ensure customer service in your company is at the highest possible level and your company has outsourced first line customer support to India, I expect you face regular challenges in your job. While the group in India is doing all they can to ensure customers are helped, you will still face complaints from these customers about their problems not being solved. When you dive into it, you find out that the India team is not following the exact procedures you have written for handling customer cases and improvises on the spot. You quickly found the root cause of the problems, you think. Not adequately following procedures is the problem. India is doing the wrong things.


Black and white thinking

What you did in this case, unconsciously, is typical black-and-white thinking. Your unconscious assumption is that your processes and procedures are right, and therefore improvising is wrong.

Think yourself of a problem or difficulty you are facing at work right now: this can be an interpersonal conflict as well. Do you recognize that you tend to look at the problem in terms of right and wrong? If one approach is right, the other approach, therefore, must be wrong. Problems are black and white, zero or one, right or wrong. There are no shades of grey.

We often call this polarity thinking. We tend to analyze problems in terms of two polarities. Either manufacturing is right, or the business unit is right. Either we centralize, either we decentralize. Either we work according to the procedures we defined, either we improvise.

In real life, however, complex problems often cannot be solved using these polarities. The best of both worlds – or: the integrative solution – is what we should look for. This is a solution that requires you to combine the best of two worlds. To be able to create this kind of solutions for problems you need an independent mindset. You need to be able to understand your own position, while you should also be able to fully understand the position of the other party. And then with an independent mindset try to combine the benefits of both worlds.


3 Steps


In the case of the IT support role, this comes down to the same 3 steps. First, ensure to understand your own position. This leads to the insight that you value uniform working processes across the company, quick answers to standard problems, efficiency (not reinventing the wheel at each request) and (admit it!) some degree of control over how your people work.


Now understand their position. This is the hardest step for most of us, as it requires us to put our own thoughts and opinions aside and put ourselves in a vulnerable position, accepting that the other person may be right and that there are things you have not understood yet. You hear yourself thinking: “Supporting customers by improvising: how can that possibly be a good thing?”. But you need to park these thoughts and allow yourself to become really curious about the other point of view. You find out that if you spend some time diving into their world, there are benefits to their way-of-working. They respond in a flexible way to all requests they get. They start from scratch each time a problem comes in, really trying to understand what the problem is about. This enables them to really get in contact with their customer, personalizing the help they provide to the customer, and not look for standard solutions to problems but find ways that are unique to this customer. Their way of working is more creative, more personal, and more flexible.

Now, are you able to find integrative solutions? Helping customers with a standardized process that also leaves room for personalization? Have a uniform way-of-working that still gives the first line support the freedom to bring creative solutions to the table and serve customers flexibly?

Notice the parallel to negotiation strategies here. When you stick to the polarities, you are applying the win-lose strategy: my solution will go at the expense of yours (if I win, you lose). The integrative solution we described above is win-win: you combine the best of both worlds and find solutions that help both parties to win.


Polarity thinking in intercultural work


Back to intercultural effectiveness. Polarity-thinking often occurs when we work with people from other cultures. I work in a structured way, so the way people work in India is chaotic. I value the inputs of all my employees, so hierarchical decisions in the US are non-optimal. I speak my mind and honestly say how it is, so the Italian person who comes with a long story is vague and has things to hide. Win-lose.

In intercultural settings, just like in other forms of conflict, it is useful to apply three steps:

  1. Understand your own position. Be aware of the benefits, and the eventual drawbacks, of the solution you propose
  2. Understand the other position. Dive into their world, put your prejudice aside and become aware of the benefits and drawbacks of their solution
  3. Now take the wise, third position and look at the problem from the view of an independent observer: how can you combine the benefits of both, whilst avoiding the drawbacks of both at the same time

Exercises we do in workshops with this method are frequently an eye-opener and sometimes very confrontational for participants. They are eye-openers because it is refreshing to see new solutions to existing problems. It is also confrontational because people realize that they indeed are very biased by their own point-of-view, and much less open to the perspective of the other party than they thought they are.

Try to apply the polarity thinking to a recent conflict or dilemma you face. Do you recognize how strongly biased you are, and how little room there was until now for integrative solution-finding? Do you recognize that you are not as open to the point-of-view of the other party as you thought you were?

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