Polarities Are Not Problems

Given how polarized the political climate in the US is right now, I thought it would be valuable to look at what polarities are and how we might better manage or leverage them at work and in our communities. This is the first in a three-part series on polarities. 

A polarity is a state in which two ideas, opinions or beliefs are completely opposite or very different from one another.

What polarities are showing up where you work or in your communities? Long-term vs. short-term, centralize vs. decentralize, individual work vs. teamwork, competition vs. collaboration, autocratic vs. participatory leadership, change vs. stability, local vs. regional, quality vs. quantity, us vs. them?

When we tackle such polarities as problems, we generate solutions that are short-lived and likely to flip the polarity into another set of problems. Let’s take individual vs. teamwork as an example.  If you have decided that the problem is lack of teamwork, well then, the solution is to create more teamwork. Right?

The potential upsides of more teamwork might be cohesiveness, pursuing a common direction, creating synergy and engendering a supportive work environment. The downsides might be meetings that are too frequent and too long, too much conformity, and individuals neglecting personal needs and aspirations.

When the downsides of too much teamwork become a problem, then you and your organization will likely want to make a 180-degree turn to supporting more individual initiative and creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, fewer and shorter meetings. Soon the downsides of emphasizing individual effort will become apparent: isolation, no common direction, little synergy among efforts and destructive competition.

With the down sides of this polarity at play, the pendulum might swing back towards teamwork again. In organizations, we lead as if the world was an either/or place in which we ricochet between or fight over opposites instead of seeing them as dilemmas to be managed.

There are three steps to help manage these dilemmas. First, identify or anticipate the downsides of the pole (seen as the problem) from which people want to move (e.g., individual work). Second, predict the upsides of the other pole that you and others have identified as the solution (teamwork).

(I highly recommend the polarity-mapping tool described by Barry Johnson in Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems.)

Third, in addition to mapping the polarities, identify the greater purpose of the upsides of BOTH polarities and the deeper fears underlying the downsides of BOTH polarities. This can open up a middle ground in which tools to manage the polarities can emerge.

For example, the purpose of the upsides of both teamwork and individual work might be to create an environment in which people are individually and collectively inspired to contribute to a common purpose. The deeper fear underlying the down sides of teamwork and individual work is that your organization will stagnate and the commitment and creativity of individuals will decrease or get lost.

Your job as a leader is to help balance the support for both through making sure the mission of your organization is clear; that you have open and effective lines of communication across all levels and functional areas; that the authority for decision-making is understood; that people know how to plan and conduct effective, team meetings; and that you have a process that rewards both individual and team effort.

It is a balancing act. Neither teamwork nor individual work is a solution. The challenge is to manage and leverage the polarities to get done what you are trying to get done with both teamwork and individual effort.

In the next blog I will explore the personal challenge of and tools for “hosting” polarities and the context in which they exist.

4 thoughts on “Polarities Are Not Problems”

  1. Hi Mary, this blog entry is very timely, both on a national level and something I can use at work. I shared with colleagues today and we’ll look forward to parts 2 & 3.

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