There is no shortage of headlines claiming that the world is facing dark and turbulent times after recent events, like the Trump election and Brexit. The sentiments are equally palpable in the U.S. as in the EU. In discussing recent trends with executives, we’ve seen worries, uncertainty and a fear that the ‘great divide‘, proposed by Stiglitz, will become a reality. This fear is strengthened by an analysis done by Pew Research Center showing a clear gap between democrats and republicans in belief systems: people seem strongly drawn to one pole of a multipolar world.
From a psychological angle these outcomes are intriguing. They represent a dichotomy-based mental model where only one outcome can be right, and synergy between the dimensions is overlooked. Dichotomies are attractive mental models for a simple reason: they offer and effortless logic based on what Kahneman would call ‘system 1’ processing; fast, intuitive, emotional thinking. The problem with dichotomies is twofold: first of all, most dichotomies cease to exist when deeper analysis is applied. So, when a person can be coerced into more reflection (‘system 2’ processing, which takes time and effort) about a particular dilemma, he or she would likely come to doubt the initial dichotomy. Secondly; dichotomies tend to fuel division. The ‘gaps’ they create are ideal for hate, in-groups vs out-groups and psychological distancing. That this can result – and has resulted – in horrors needs no further explanation.
So, in a multipolar world – with brains that automatically seem to favour dichotomies – where do we go? How do we embrace ambidexterity as leaders? Company leaders face apparent contradictions (examples in title slide) on a constant basis in their decision-making; with ‘long term vs short term’, ‘explore for the future vs exploit what you have today‘, ‘purpose vs profit’, and ‘local vs global’. The same rule applies here as in global politics; believing in polar opposites often leads companies astray: it puts them in a position which is too extreme based on a belief system. The ultimate balancing trick is to be more in the middle: to know about both poles, but to not get carried with one side or the other. It is no wonder that HBS now teaches their new leaders to be ‘ambidextrous’: capable of embracing both poles.