In this article we’ll be introducing you to Polarity Thinking, one of the most powerful tools we use to help build leadership capacity. “Leadership capacity” is the ability to think and then respond more effectively during times of increasing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change. We describe the difference between leadership capacity and leadership competencies in this article. We highly encourage you to read it. We think it may be the most important article we’ve written.
Our intention is to have you integrate Polarity Thinking as a fundamental tool for helping to become an even more happy and effective human being. If you are in a leadership role, this model will absolutely help you become an even more effective leader.
We would like to begin by telling you a story. This is one of many stories we can share where using a Polarity Map greatly increased the functioning of a team and/or individual leader.
A few years ago we were leading a workshop for an organization that operates out of multiple sites. The owners were in attendance, as well as the site managers and other key organizational leaders.
There was a discussion about whether all of the sites needed to look exactly the same, to ensure continuity of customer experience, or could be adapted in order to deal with differences between sites. The dialogue became polarized and heated. (As you’ll see, Polarity Thinking is an antidote to destructive polarized thinking). The two camps were firmly entrenched in their positions.
We went to the front of the room, took a flipchart sheet, and started with this diagram. We’ve taken the actual flipchart sheet from that day and just erased different quadrants so we can tell the story.
We told them that polarities, unlike polarizations, are two positive qualities that can feel like opposites. They pull in different directions. But both are needed to optimize the functioning of leaders, organizations and individuals.
We first asked the group, “What’s good about Consistency in a business?” This is how we generally facilitate a discussion for a Polarity Map, asking first what’s positive about the upper left quadrant. You can see what they said below. Their contributions included meeting customer expectations, saving time, ease of training, and interchangeable of staff across locations.
We then asked, “What’s good about Flexibility in a business?” This is our second question: What’s positive about the upper right quadrant? See below for what they said. Ideas like being able to be adaptive, to evolve, adjust, and customize.
The next question in the development of a Polarity Map is what makes this a higher-level thinking tool, as opposed to a “pros and cons” list. The bottom left box is NOT, “What’s negative or bad about Consistency?”
As an aside, often what we see written about Polarity Thinking, even professionally published articles, makes this same mistake, seeing these maps as looking at the upside and downside of each of the poles. Doing so loses the potent value of this tool. Polarity Thinking when used correctly is about building BOTH/AND rather than EITHER/OR thinking in a powerful and tangible way, and this requires framing the bottom quadrants in a particular way.
We use two ways of phrasing the questions for the bottom quadrants. Either: “What’s the downside of over-privileging Consistency over Flexibility?” Or: “What’s the downside of being biased toward Consistency over Flexibility?” This could be discounting the value of Flexibility, or even seeing it as negative. This is a very different question than, “What is the downside of Consistency?” Instead, it’s asking, “What happens if we think Consistency is incredibly important, without integrating the value of its pole, Flexibility? What unintended consequences then arise?”
Below you see what the leaders said. When you over-privilege Consistency things become boring, stagnant, negative for both staff and customers as well as hurting the bottom line.
And how about the other side, the downside of over-privileging or being biased to Flexibility over Consistency? Chaos, disorganization, lose brand recognition and, surprise, negative for both staff and customers as well as hurting the bottom line.
This is remarkably common, to see many of the downsides echoed on both sides of the bottom quadrants. It really drives home the importance of both poles (both/and rather than either/or) which is the point of a polarity map.
After an individual or team has completed a polarity map we point out several powerful insights:
(1) Whether you’re an advocate for Consistency, or an advocate for Flexibility, you actually lose what you most wanted when you over-privilege that quality. This is so important. It is what tends to be mind-blowing. The Consistency advocates saw this as good for both staff and customers. They were amazed when they saw how they lost what they cared about when they over-privileged Consistency over Flexibility.
Similarly, those who advocated Flexibility saw that they wanted to better meet the needs of both staff and customers, yet both are lost when they over-privilege Flexibility over Consistency.
(2) The second part of the processing, as mentioned above, is showing the many similar factors that have been identified in both bottom quadrants. Over-privileging either Consistency or Flexibility is bad for staff, customers, and the business as a whole.
(3) Finally, we help people see that they tend to over-privilege one pole because they are afraid of the downside of the other pole. In this case, those who are biased toward Consistency are concerned about the chaos and confusion that can result from too much Flexibility. In fact, when they think of Flexibility it’s mostly the downside of it. Those who are biased toward Flexibility tend to focus on their concern about stagnancy and rigidity, the downside of Consistency, and this is what they tend to think of when they hear this word.
We wish you could have been there as we completed and then processed the polarity map. The tension came out of the room. The polarized camps saw that they both wanted the same thing: a way of operating the business that was good for staff, customers and profit. They both saw that they lost what they most wanted when they over-privileged one side or the other. The rest of the dialogue was about how to get the best of both qualities, to operate with Consistency AND Flexibility rather than Consistency vs. Flexibility.
We have found it’s very hard for people to use “and” rather than “vs.” It’s just how most of us think, how we were taught. Easily thinking both/and with polarities requires later-stage complexity thinking, as we were describe below. So in our leadership trainings, and with our executive coaching clients, they find themselves saying Task vs. People, Operational vs. Strategic, etc. when describing pairs of polarities.
Using “and” helps open our minds to see how to optimally operate in the tension between the two poles, and also builds cognitive capacity, the ability to think and then act more effectively in response to complex challenges.
Vulnerability & Vision
More recently, we’ve added another important factor to our Polarity work. Polarity Maps often add extraordinary insight on a cognitive level. But there’s also an emotional level to being able to fully benefit from those insights. We’ll explain with an example.
We were recently working with a leader using the polarity of Being Powerful & Empowering Others. This leader over-privileged Being Powerful. Remember that when we over-privilege one side it’s generally because we’re afraid of the down-side of the other pole. The leader could see the Task-related fears of the down-side of over-privileging Empowering Others, including lack of alignment in the work, and the People-related fears, including lack of motivation and lower engagement. But there are almost always also Self-related fears. In this case they included not being seen or admired or perceived as doing enough.
There is almost always a Vulnerability that holds the over-privileging in place. This Vulnerability is often not seen or acknowledged. If it’s not acknoweldged, and worked with, the odds of actual behavioral change greatly diminish.
Hopefully this makes sense to you, because it’s such an important insight. Even if I’m a leader who can now cognitively see the downside of over-privileging Being Powerful over Empowering Others, if I have a fear of not getting enough credit, or even of questioning my own self-worth, and I don’t consciously work with this fear, I may wonder why I continue to act as I’ve always acted. Why? Because there’s a core Vulnerability I’d have to experience if I acted in new ways.
What does it mean to work with a Vulnerability? It starts with just acknowledging its existence and being OK that it’s there. If we can feel it in our bodies, then we can perhaps breathe into the feeling, make space for it. It greatly helps to remind ourselves of the Value that has us want to deal more effectively with this polarity. In this case the Value might be becoming an even more effective leader, capable of taking on more responsibilities. We can then ask ourselves which is more important, protecting the Vulnerability or aligning ourselves to the Value?
When working with clients we put the Vulnerability in a box at the bottom of the Polarity Map. The top box becomes the Vision, who we would be if we successfully handled the tension of that Vulnerability. We ask our clients to take some time to reflect on the right wording. We want it to be particularly meaningful for them, perhaps touching their heart. This wording then becomes a positive “trigger” for who the leader wants to be, to honor their Values.What wording might this leader choose? Perhaps Truly Inspirational Leader.
Once a leader works with their polarity for a while, it’s important to have them check and see if their fears were realized, or not. In this case, as the leader puts equal weight on Being Powerful and Empowering Others, they are much more likely to be even more admired and respected as a wonderful leader of both Task and People. But unless the original Vulnerability was acknowledged, the leader might have considerable difficulty getting traction in making changes, and also be confused about why.
Systemic Vulnerability & Vision
OK, so hopefully this makes sense so far. Individual leaders can identify the Vulnerability that supports the current over-privileging, see the Vulnerability in light of their Values, and then choose a Vision of who they would be if they were better honoring the tension of that Polarity.
But how does this relate to an organizational tension, like the one we started with? Individuals have fears and vulnerabilities, of course? But how about systems? Organizations, teams, etc.? The answer is absolutely yes.
Let’s use our original client example. Over-privileging Consistency is fairly easy. We just do everything the same. And over-privileging Flexibility is also fairly easy. Each manager just does their own thing. Working effectively in the tension of Consistency & Flexibility requires a lot more skill, particularly in the areas of collaboration and communication. And effective collaboration and communication requires the cultivation of deeper skills around perspective-taking (putting ourselves in the shoes of others), perspective-seeking (asking about their perspectives), perspective coordination (honoring the tension of often competing perspectives) and collaborative capacity (the ability to work more effectively together). The organizational Vulnerability could well have been fear that they didn’t have what it would take to have those dialogues go well. The Values might have been serving the needs of all stakeholders (customers, managers, owners) more effectively. And the Vision might become A Truly Collaborative Organization.
Awareness ≠ Change
As we described in The Big Lie in Leadership Development, raising awareness is never enough. Our brains are designed to run on cheap fuel. It takes a lot of energy to run our prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive functioning (reflection, response flexibility, intuition, empathy, perspective taking and seeking, body regulation, attuned communication, etc.). Our brains would much rather run the low-energy subcortical areas that have us be on automatic pilot or in “habit mode,” and that is where we live the vast majority of our day. No book, workshop, or “peak moment” changes our brains. In order to change how we think, and then how we act, we need to view capacity-building as requiring a daily practice. This doesn’t have to take a long time. Our brain changes through many short cycles, throughout the day, of action and reflection. This short article, Guaranteed to Optimize Your Leadership Effectiveness in Minutes a Day, describes a powerful way you can quickly increase your leadership capacity.
When we work with our executive coaching clients we often assist them in identifying their highest-leverage Polarity — the one that, if balanced well, can have the greatest overall impact on their leadership effectiveness. If they reflect on the associated Polarity Map, many times a day, they almost certainly will increase their leadership effectiveness. It’s especially powerful for our clients to look at this Polarity Map right before meetings, and briefly reflect on how they might optimize that polarity — leading as BOTH/AND rather than EITHER/OR — in that forthcoming meeting, and then to reflect at the end of the meeting the extent to which they did so.
The Vision statement, as described in the last section, is particularly powerful for this. Who do we want to be, who do we need to be, in order to more effectively deal with the tension of this Polarity? And can we remind ourselves of this, our desire to embody this quality, right before every meeting?
What are some of the most-important-polarities selected by some recent executive coaching clients and teams? They include:
- Stability & Change
- Task & People
- Humility & Confidence
- Smoothing Out & Creating Friction
- Facilitating & Leading
- Taking Charge & Empowering
- Supporting & Challenging
- Consistency & Flexibility
- Giving Advice & Listening Well
- Operational & Strategic
- Transparency & Discretion
- Short-Term Profit & Long-Term Sustainability
- Team/Department Needs & Organization Needs
- Competition & Collaboration
- Action & Reflection
- Managing My Job & Managing My Career
- External Client & Internal Client (Employee)
- Centralize & Decentralize
- Short-Term & Long-Term
- Idealism & Realism [a great polarity for those in public service]
- Work & Family
- My Needs & Your Needs (in personal relationships)
“Balanced well” means living mostly in the upper two boxes, and minimizing the down-side of the lower two boxes. It is important to understand that “balanced well” does not mean being “vanilla” and doing 50% of each. It means being versatile, doing the right amount of each in a given circumstance.
- If there’s an emergency or critical deadline it may be totally appropriate to Take Charge rather than put equal attention on Empower. But a leader who consistently Takes Charge at the expense of Empowering will be an autocratic leader who stifles engagement, collaboration, and creativity and generates suboptimal results. The same is true of a leader who overly Empowers, leading to an Abdicating leadership style.
- Similarly, in times of great tension and strain a leader may rightly put more focus on Smoothing Out rather than Creating Friction. But a leader who consistently over-privileges this quality will avoid necessarily conflict and neither challenge nor hold people accountable.
How Contexts Drive Thinking and Action
We are all deeply impacted by the contexts in which we work and live. They impact how we think and what we think about. When we’re looking to balance an important polarity, like Individual & Collective, it is vital to examine and take into account what is currently being driven by the organizational culture in which we work. To lead in the way I want to lead, will I be swimming along with the organizational current, or against it? How will I be seen by others?
Without this reflection, the impact of the organizational culture is largely unconscious for most leaders. They do not realize how much the culture is shaping their thoughts, feelings, and actions. For this reason we ask our clients to step back and reflect on what the organizational culture actually reinforces. Not its stated mission, vision and values, but rather questions like, Who gets promoted? Who gets influence? What gets modeled by senior leaders?
We invite our clients to reflect on how they want to lead, and how aligned, or misaligned, this is with the culture in which they work.
For example, what if I’m a leader who is really driven to support my people. I see coaching and development as one of my prime roles. I want them to shine. I want to put them forward, have them present to senior leadership, unlike my peers who generally take all the credit for the work their teams do. But if I’m working in an organizational culture that expects leaders to always be front and center, will my senior leadership now wonders whether I’m adding any value? Will they say, “His people are doing all this great work. But what does he actually do all day? Do we really need him here?”
Using Polarity Maps for Lasting Change and Transformation
The power of a Polarity Map comes from its integration through ongoing application through action and reflection. As mentioned in the section Awareness ≠ Change, simply raising awareness has little if any impact on how we think and then act. It does not develop new neural pathways.
One capacity-building activity, when dealing with a complex problem, is to attempt to identify the relevant polarities. For example, we may be focused on how to have more transparency, without seeing that it’s part of a polarity with Transparency & Discretion. We once coached a leader who overly valued transparency, and did not realize how often people starting preparing their resumes because of casual information or even musings he shared.
One of our colleagues suggested that organizational values might better be expressed as polarities as well. For example, one municipality had a value of Excellence. But that was really incomplete. A better expression of that municipality’s values would have been Excellence & Efficiency, living in the tension of wanting to do as much good as possible with limited resources.
How can any polarity map lead to lasting change?
- Choose a polarity that’s deeply meaningful to you. One that tends to be out-of-balance in your life, and one that, if managed more effectively, would have a significantly positive impact, leading you to be even more aligned with your higher values, as well as happier and more fulfilled. Change is hard no matter what. If often requires feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable along the way. Choosing one that really, really matters is a vital first step.
- Identify the professional or life value that will particularly be strengthened when you are more balanced on this polarity. This is so important, because change is almost always uncomfortable. What’s important enough to be willing to experience discomfort? In a leadership role, “By better managing Task & People, I’ll actually drive more sustainable results and, equally important, I’ll feel good about my impact on those who report to me, the people who are in my care. I’ll be more aligned with the kind of human I aspire to be, and I’ll leave a positive wake on others.”
- Create a polarity map based on that polarity. Do this when you can be relaxed and optimally reflective and self-aware. Most people find it easier to fill in the positive aspects of the pole they over-privilege, and the negative aspects of the opposite pole. See if this is true of you.
- We have a document on this page that leads you through how to draw a Polarity Map, if it’s not already clear.
- Ask yourself what would be uncomfortably vulnerable or challenging about living the both/and. This is a very important reflection. For example, a leader might be able to cognitively see the value of balancing Confidence with Humility, but still have a hard time actualizing this insight because even appropriate humility feels “weak” and “soft” and contrary to the image they have carefully crafted over decades of leadership.
- Reflect on this map regularly. In the mornings. Before important meetings. Ask yourself what it might look like, or feel like, to act more from a BOTH/AND place. Then, after the meeting, ask yourself how you did, and how that impacted you and others.
- Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. According to psychologist Rick Hanson, we are “Velcro” for negative experiences and “Teflon” for positive ones. Focus 80% of your attention on the positive impacts of your awareness-inspired action, on you and on others. Give a little attention to missed opportunities.
- At the end of the day, again take out the polarity map. Reflect overall on the extent to which your were a little more aligned with it. For one of the authors, “To what extent did I relax in Being, instead of being agitatedly engaged in continual Doing? How did that feel? What was the impact on my life?”
- We summarize this process in this short article. It’s particularly important to check which aspect of ourselves is doing the reflecting. Is it our compassionate, kind, curious, loving Inner Observer, or our cruel, harsh, judgmental Inner Critic? A mindfulness practice is very helpful in learning to shift to the Inner Observer.
Using Polarities Maps with Others
Many of our organizational clients have used polarity maps with their teams, or with other individuals, to great success. The maps open dialogues, often break impasses, and lead to generation of novel solutions.
- There’s a particular “flow” that tends to work best. Start with the pole that the other(s) tend to over-privilege. First validate their values, and also their concerns (the downside of the other pole). Then it will be easiest for them to hear the “other side of the story.” Re-visiting the Consistency & Flexibility map, for example, if your colleague or team tends to be biased toward Flexibility, start there, and do the map for Flexibility & Consistency. If the opposite is true, start with Consistency.
- The polarity map can be used to structure dialogue. Remember that if people are biased toward Consistency, it’s because they are particularly wanting to avoid the down-side of over-privileging Flexibility. Using the map below, the conversation might go something like this: “We of course need to have the alignment that comes with Consistency (top left). And we absolutely need to avoid the chaos that would come with lack of clarity for our customers and staff (bottom right). But at the same time we have to make sure we don’t become stagnant and complacent (bottom left). So how can we build in some Flexibility (top right) without descending into chaos or confusion?”
We hope this article has sparked your interest in deepening your understand and application of Polarity Thinking. Please reach out with any thoughts or questions. We’re happy to respond.