Our brains are naturally hard-wired to find the shortest path to making decisions. “The light is green: go.” “The light is red: stop.” We also spend much of our time as students learning in similar ways: math problems where “4+4=8” and true or false tests where only one right answer is possible like, “True or False? The capital of Ohio is Columbus.”
Unsurprisingly, we carry these approaches into adulthood and into our leadership roles, often finding ourselves stuck and unable to change or move forward when looking for an ‘either/or’ answer where actually more than one solution exists. These situations are what Dr. Barry Johnson has defined as polarities or, “…interdependent pairs that need each other over time.” (Johnson, 2020, p. 11) These polarities, Dr. Johnson’s research has found, represent challenges to be managed rather than problems to be solved.
A quick scan finds numerous examples of polarities in our everyday lives: work-life balance, tasks vs. relationships and communicating with candor vs. diplomacy just to name a few. Polarities exist because of the tension that exists between the values and fears of two poles. Incorporating an “And” approach complements traditional problem-solving methods, helping to manage those polarities.
According to Dr. Johnson, we manage polarities by, Seeing, Mapping, Assessing, Learning and Leveraging them. (p. 24) Fortunately, his decades of research have provided us with a relatively simple tool to help demonstrate this, as seen in the graphic below, using inhaling and exhaling as a necessary polarity to manage in order to achieve the greater purpose of staying alive.
Seeing – relatively straightforward; we clearly see that we can't choose to either inhale or exhale, but rather must inhale and exhale.
Mapping – We can map the polarities and see the upsides of both inhaling and exhaling (top squares) while also seeing the downside consequences of managing one to the neglect of the other (bottom squares).
Assessing/Learning – Done quickly and near simultaneously in this instance; how well are we meeting our needs to both inhale and exhale? Have we noticed increased carbon dioxide or decreased oxygen?
Leveraging – What action steps can we take to maximize the upsides and what early warning signs will we now look for when we’re moving into the downsides?
While the example above is quite simplified, polarity management is an effective tool for leaders as they tackle everything from individual challenges to organizational dilemmas. Like noticing red cars everywhere once we’ve decided to buy one, I see polarities arising more often in my leadership coaching as I look for more opportunities to apply it. Jennifer (not her real name) was a client with a greater purpose of being an effective leader. As she expressed her desire to remain authentic, leading by being humble and reserved, Jennifer wrestled with feedback she received that she needed to act more assertively and demonstrate greater self-confidence. We worked with the polarity map and cataloged the upsides of both, as well as the negative results of focusing on one more than the other. The resultant action steps and early warnings helped Jennifer empower others and stay true to her personal values by leading humbly, while at the same time knowing when she needed to be more assertive in order to provide the clarity of task and purpose her team needed. Jennifer welcomed this balance, leading more confidently while also staying true to herself.
I encourage you to become more aware of the polarities that are present in your everyday life. And the next time you’re wrestling with a leadership challenge, I encourage you to ask yourself: is this an ‘either/or’ problem with just one solution, or do I have a polarity that needs managed by using ‘And’?
Johnson, B. 2020. And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma. Volume One: Foundations. HRD Press.