Real Leaders

Polarity Thinking: A Leadership Game Changer

Composted portrait of man and businessman.

Overwhelmed. That’s the word I hear most when I ask business leaders how they’re doing. Whether it’s leading a family or a business, everyone’s struggling to keep up with the unprecedented rate of change. There’s nothing we can do to reduce the complexity of our environment. But we can alter the way we interpret and think about it.

In our lives, we’re often faced with a problem to be solved that has one right answer. As you progress in your education and career, you’re faced with many of these scenarios. Do you go to college or straight into the workforce? Which subject should you major in? Do you take the offer from Company A or Company B? Should you leave this job and start your own business?

At work, you face similar types of problems and decisions. Which candidate do you hire? What assignment do you finish first? Do you ask for a raise, or don’t you?

In your personal life, you face the same endless problem-solving requirements around marriage, child-rearing, friendship, and so on.

But what about decisions that have two or more interdependent right answers? For example, think about parenting. If you’re raising children with someone else, you and your partner probably have different ideas about how to do it. You may be more controlling, and your partner may be more agreeable.

In this case, you’re not facing a problem to be solved. There is no one right answer. Instead, you’re dealing with a polarity (or tension) that can be leveraged. There are benefits and wisdom both to being controlling and being permissive. The problem is that you likely see most conflicts as problems that need solutions. And guess whose answer is usually right? Yours, of course.

Being aware of the distinction between problems to be solved and polarities to be leveraged is the difference between average performance and extraordinary results. You can’t truly master your environment if you don’t internalize this distinction. Once you do, I guarantee you’ll feel as if you are walking through a different world in which natural, healthy tensions abound. What once appeared as a decision between two alternatives requiring either/or thinking now shows up as a tension that can be leveraged through both/and thinking.

So what do you do when you encounter a polarity? How do you leverage tension?

Step One: Awareness

The initial step, of course, is awareness. You have to be able to see the polarity in the first place. This takes a bit of practice, but it changes the landscape. The next time an issue arises, step back and ask yourself: “Is this a problem, or a polarity?”

Step Two: Acknowledge Your Bias

The second step is to acknowledge you will always have a preference or bias for one pole over the other. For example, in my leadership, I confront the tension between challenging my team and celebrating with my team all the time. I have a preference for challenging others. That’s okay, as long as I’m aware of it and acknowledge it.

Step Three: Map the Polarity

The third step is to map the polarity. This is where the work of Barry Johnson, a polarity pioneer, has been so valuable. In a therapy session with a client in the 1970s, Johnson had one of those famous epiphanies and developed, in the session itself, what would become the standard template for mapping polarities.

Polarities were not a new discovery; of course, the wisdom of paradox is a tenet of most ancient traditions. Paradox is at the heart of Taoism, with the yin and the yang symbol speaking to the universal notion that all opposites are part of a greater whole. They are inseparable and give rise to each other.

Johnson’s genius was to apply this ancient wisdom to the complexity of modern life and give us tools to manage and leverage the inherent tensions that surround us effectively. Mapping a polarity means naming the benefits of each pole and the downsides of overfocusing on either pole. You’ll find tools and information on planning a polarity here.

Step Four: Commit to Specific Actions

Integrating a polarity is not easy, mainly when you’ve held a strong preference for one pole over the other. It requires you to do the hard work of committing to real, actionable items that effectively reap the benefits of both poles. This step is about going beyond a theoretical, intellectual exercise and committing to new, more effective behaviors.

For example, one action that’s become an ongoing practice for me in integrating the challenging/celebrating polarity is micro feedback. I no longer wait to give feedback; I give it regularly. And I do it in a way that benefits both poles. I try my best to find something in every situation to celebrate with the person I’m speaking to. And I find an opportunity to give constructive comments in areas I believe he or she can do better—not because I want to be critical, but because I see the potential within every person.

Polarity thinking is a game-changer. When you see tensions, you begin to see the wholeness of people and situations. And you do so without giving up your values, preferences, or convictions. In the words of Barry Johnson, “When I can see someone, I can love them.”

Think about the ramifications of this thinking for your relationships, for your development, and for the organizations you work with. And then begin to imagine a world, which today is perhaps more divided than ever, in which people increasingly can see and appreciate the inherent complexity of life rather than be unnecessarily divided by and trapped within the narrow thinking of an either/or mindset.

Imagine a world where either/or thinking has a prominent place and is supplemented by the power of both/and thinking. That’s a world I’d like my children to live in.

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