The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Is it this or that?

Western and eastern societies often use different ways to think about life, others and oneself.

The Taoist Yin-Yang symbol is one of the better-known ideas representing a concept which is easily highlighted in eastern societies. Yin-Yang is a concept of dualism. It describes how seemingly opposite or contrary forces can be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent. Light, for example, doesn’t exist without dark. Yin-Yang brings the idea forward that it is about both forces.

Societies have had to attend both throughout history: They organized community while meeting the needs of individuals.

The idea to attend to both is transforming traditional decision making in organizations. The “both-and” thinking has grown in importance and supplements the “either-or” thinking used in the past. “Either-or” becoming seen as paradox, dilemmas or tensions.

The “either-or” approach works best when decision making is related to a problem. That is to something that can be solved with an answer of what is right or best.

As the Yin-Yang concept shows, there are often situations in which there is an ongoing, unsolvable dilemma. When such a dilemma contains seemingly opposing ideas we are dealing with polarities.

Examples for polarities are

  • work – life
  • stability – change
  • candor – politeness

Polarity thinking uses a “both-and” approach and leads to a move away from “you are wrong and I am right” towards “we are both right”. Change is inevitable, stability is needed, by combining both transformation becomes manageable. We appreciate politeness and will be grateful for candor when it guides us.

Leaders are moving away from a unique focus, like for example the mantra to grow, grow, grow. Today the answer often is, focus on both sides of the polarity and do both well. It’s more challenging, but it links with the reality that everything isn’t just another problem to solve.


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