Polar Opposites

In recent months there has been a lot written (and talked) about the increasing levels of vitriol and ‘extremist’ views across the political landscape, in addition to social media. From ‘gilet jaunes’ and veganism to Brexit and US Politics, less strident opinions often struggle to get heard.

In the latter case it is perhaps no surprise that Donald Trump has emerged.  One colleague provided a fantastic graphic that showed how, over the last fifty years, the make-up of Congress has polarised into two camps where the overlap (the rational middle) between them is non-existent.  Donald Trump then becomes not the outlier but the natural leader of one of the camps whose views he reflects and amplifies.

Daniel Finkelstein recently wrote about this issue in The Times (paywall) referring to the process of ‘Group Polarisation’, an extension of the concept of Groupthink. This happens when groups of like-minded individuals take a position that increasingly becomes more extreme – and subsequently turn on those of similar, but milder, persuasion.

Group polarisation in the context of how teams and organisations function may not be obvious, but it exists. Certainly the debate is not carried out in public on Twitter or Facebook and for that reason may be more insidious.  In my last blog on ‘creeping normality’ I highlighted how the abnormal becomes the normal – group polarisation is another manifestation of that, but this time more obviously dangerous.

The extent to which a team suffers from the effects of group polarisation will depend on the mix of personality styles and the positions of those within the team’s hierarchy.  Those with rational voices may be glossed over as the team reinforces its position, while those with reservations or questions are seen as ‘not being on board’ or even troublemakers.  Two camps emerge and constructive debate to find a common solution dissolves with both sides trying to sabotage the other.  I liken the process to a centrifuge where self-reinforcing arguments spin the views to ever greater extremes.

Group polarisation can also be prevalent where risk – either financial or safety related – is an issue, where groups move from a reasoned evaluation of what might happen to a position that ‘it will never happen to us’. Often this ends up with the other side of the debate being characterised as lily-livered and risk averse. 

Three ways to prevent group polarisation

To pre-empt the effects of group polarisation several actions can be taken:

It is doubtful (and a relief) that most of us will ever be caught up in an argument that is as extended or as full of vitriol as the Brexit saga that Finkelstein refers to, but in our desire to be ‘right’ we are often guilty of taking increasingly extreme, and possibly irrational views.


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