Third Rail

Is it wiser to back off and leave well enough alone when a team issue is so hot that controversy is a certain result?

Chicago’s elevated railway trains are powered by the continuous delivery of electricity supplied by a conductor that feeds a “third rail” next to a pair of rails upon which the passenger cars travel. Anyone who rides Chicago’s “L” public transportation system knows that you never touch the third rail. The consequences are immediate and deadly.

In team dynamics, “hot button issues” are sometimes called “third rail issues” because almost any position taken is sure to please one group of people and offend another. The polarities generated by extreme reactions can be deadly to a team’s ambitions.

Viewpoints become easily entrenched. Competition ensues. Collaboration requires letting go of things that seem vital to the survival of an idea. Team members assume a protective stance. Differences grow dialectically opposed.

How does a team move forward? Is it necessary that one side acquiesce to the other?

Classic dialectics involve a dialogue between two opposite points of view. A dialogue, by its nature, seeks understanding of the other person’s position. Ideally, understanding leads to acknowledgment, appreciation, and then, synthesis of opposing perspectives into something new.

Synthesis enables something innovative to emerge from contrasting positions. Human service professionals call it “working through” where the mutual effort to understand the other person’s position creates collaboration and trust. As a result, rather than attempting to move forward with a chasm of inclusion versus exclusion of ideas, common goals are re-established on a platform built from mature dialogue and understanding.

“Us and them” becomes “we.”