The Power of Polarity Thinking

Clear Impact Consulting Group
38 min readApr 12, 2021


Including the Enneagram Polarities

These were two of our beloved German Shepherds, Tara (on the left) and her brother Shiva. They were Polarities in many ways: Agentic & Communal, Cognitive & Affective, Firm & Soft

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’ll also be introducing you to our unique contribution, The Enneagram Polarities, using Polarity Thinking to deepen the integration and application of the wisdom that comes from knowing your Enneagram type. The Enneagram, from our perspective, is the most powerful self-awareness system for understanding our strengths, habits and patterns, and bringing out our best. More about the Enneagram later.

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, most of what we see written about Polarity Thinking, even professionally published articles, make this same mistake, seeing these maps as looking at the upside and downside of each of the poles. Doing so completely 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 valued 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.

Important Caveats about Polarity Thinking

As we will explain in more detail in our forthcoming book, none of our capacity-building tools and models can stand on their own. They need to be interwoven with other approaches in order to build capacity, the ability to think and then act more effectively in times of increasing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change.

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 assuredly will increase their 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
  • Giving Advice & Listening Well
  • Operational & Strategic
  • Transparency & Discretion
  • Short-Term Profit & Long-Term Sustainability
  • Team/Department Needs & Organization Needs
  • Competition & Collaboration
  • Managing My Job & Managing My Career
  • External Client & Internal Client (Employee)
  • Centralize & Decentralize
  • 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 is 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.

Increasingly later-stage levels of leadership capacity, as we describe in Leadership Development — It’s About Capacity, Not Just Competencies, see polarities very differently. These terms will make sense when you read that article. You can think of each subsequent term as an upgrade to the overall operating system, rather than just having a new piece of software. It takes time and applied practice to move through these levels.

  • Conformer Level: I may have trouble really grasping a polarity map like Task & People.
  • Expert Level: I choose one polarity over the other. For example, ,”I get the distinction, but I’m a Task-oriented leader. That’s what I do. I focus more on being Operational, I just get things done. Others can focus more on People. Maybe I’ll have someone on my team who can focus on that People-oriented stuff. They can organize the staff parties.”
  • Achiever Level: I see polarities as shades of grey. Sometimes I need to be more Task-focused, other times more People-focused. One day it might be 70/30, another day 20/80.
  • Catalyst+ Level and Above: I see polarities as tensions to live, rather than as problems to solve. It’s beyond “shades of grey.” I need to continually hold the value of each pole (e.g. Task & People) and function from that level of awareness. When I’m dealing with Task I do not forget that it’s People carrying out the work, and that those People are in my care and I need to be aware of how I am impacting them. When I’m dealing with People, I do not forget our context, that we are here to get things done.

Building capacity, the ability to think and act more effectively in response to complex problems, requires a daily practice of reflection, including perspective-taking (putting ourselves in the shoes of others) and perspective-seeking (being open, with kindness and curiosity, to seeking the perspective of others).

The Power of Context

Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us are always adapting to, and juggling, being part of multiple contexts in our workplaces. This includes our organizational culture, perhaps our professional culture (engineering, nursing, finance, etc.), and the greater contexts in which our organization is embedded (economic, social, political issues, overall country culture, etc.). Those contexts include some Polarities that are balanced well, and others that are almost always off-balance. We will provide some example of polarities that are generally off-balance in Western organizations:

  • Individual over Collective

In this article on Pond Thinking we describe how most leaders overly focus on individual performance, or the performance of a collection of individuals, leaving out the contextual factors impacting the collective. This seriously limits systemic thinking.

For example, it is not unusual for executives and top leaders to view their organizations as a collection of individual departments, and/or a collection of individuals leading those departments, rather than considering the interconnected nature of those departments and/or leaders.

For this reason, most executive teams are not actually teams. They are executive groups. We have found that almost all leaders run their teams as a collection of individual contributors rather than first creating a culture of being in-it-together for meeting their overall collective purpose and goals, thus optimizing their overall success.

From more effective later-stage leadership capacity, it becomes clear that all parts of a team or organization are interconnected, and therefore the parts need first to be understood as an overall system.

What does it look like to lead from a systemic perspective, rather than over-privileging focusing on individuals and parts of the organization? This links to a blog post describing a process we often recommend to our clients.

We generally save Polarity Maps we create with teams or organizations that are either on flip chart paper, on our iPads (like the above map), or using the Whiteboard on Zoom. This map was developed with leaders from an architectural firm. Notice how those who really value an Individual focus (top left) want to bring out the best in others and have them be highly motivated, but when they over-privilege Individual over Collective (bottom left) both performance and engagement suffer. Similarly, those who highly value a Collective focus (top right), with shared values, collaboration, and synergy, actually limit motivation and growth when they over-privilege Collective over Individual (bottom right).

  • Task over People

In a typical organizational culture, although their values generally say otherwise, people are often viewed primarily as objects to get the work done. Task is almost always over-privileged at the expense of People. While the organization’s values likely include something like, “People are our most important asset,” and leaders would not want to see themselves as objectifying workers, an examination of how they actually conduct business reveals this over-privileging. While they of course want to drive ownership and engagement, their practices make it clear where their attention really goes.

This is a variation on Task & People we did with one of our client groups. Notice, in the above polarity map, that over-privileging Developing the Organization and over-privileging Developing People both lead to lower engagement, negatively impacting employees and poorer business results.

  • Operational over Strategic

This leads to the daily focus on getting things done (Operational), rather than being clear they are getting the right things done (Strategic), or shifting direction as needed.

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 changing 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. This can be seen as another polarity: What the Organization is Reinforcing & How I Want to Lead. Most leaders do what is expected of them, without conscious awareness, in order to feel safe, and can even think it’s their own preference. This is the over-privileging of What the Organization is Reinforcing. On the other hand, over-privileging How I Want to Lead can result in being attacked by the organization's immune system, not fitting in, and perhaps being kicked out. It takes the development of BOTH/AND thinking capacity to work well with this tension.

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. What does he do all day? Do we really need him here?”

Capacity-Building and the limits of Heroic Leadership

Most professionals involved in developing leadership potential (human capital, HR, talent management, etc.) do not understand Levels of Development-in-Action, or the application to leadership development of what has been learned from the field of adult development. They believe they need to teach leadership competencies (which, in our model, are like software programs) rather than upgrading the “operating system” of their leaders, which we refer to as capacity-building.

Most talent development professionals focus on identifying leadership competencies without understanding what “operating system upgrade” is needed to actually effectively embody those competencies.

This is our map of Levels of Development-in-Action. Please read this article to understand this vitally important Model.

Integrating Polarity Thinking requires continuing to upgrade leadership capacity (including BOTH/AND thinking), or leaders’ overall “operating system.” Handling complexity, where there is no one right answer, requires this. As described in these two articles, one on a daily capacity-building practice, and the second on the overall model of leadership capacity, this includes an ongoing practice of reflection, perspective taking, and perspective seeking.

At least 80% of leaders function or operate within the range of Heroic Leadership. At these levels, leaders believe they need to have all the answers. They need to be “captains of their ships,” clear and strong, and fully in charge. They have learned to see vulnerability as “weakness” and struggle to say things like, “I’m not sure that I have the best answer here. I’d really like your help in crafting an optimal path forward.” Their leadership mindset inadvertently leads them to under-collaborate, over-control, under-engage and under-utilize others. For this reason they have a difficult time leading effectively in times of increasing complexity, where there isn’t “one right answer.”

Dealing effectively with complexity requires leaders to accept that they don’t know what they don’t know, that all perspectives are inherently limited, including their own. Asking others for their perspectives also builds increased ownership for the results. For this reason, dealing effectively with complexity requires creating a context deeply imbued with safety and trust, in which all differing perspectives are welcomed, integrated and needed. “Heroic Leaders,” who unfortunately are most leaders, have trouble with this. They have learned, as we said above, to over-privilege what they know over what they don’t know.

Dealing effectively with Polarities includes being willing to see what is lopsided or “out of balance” even with one’s own perspective and to be open to share this vulnerability with others. It requires being willing to see that we don’t already “have it all together” and that we have to continually watch for our blind spots and unbalanced thinking. For this reason, in order to optimally integrate and derive the value of Polarity Thinking, ongoing capacity development of leaders and those who report to them is required, as described in this article.

Heroic Leaders tend to over-privilege:

  • My Perspective over Your Perspective
  • I Know over I Don’t Know
  • Confidence over Humility
  • Giving Advice over Listening Well

The Origins of Polarity Thinking and How Our Approach is Different

We first learned about Polarity Thinking from a book by Barry Johnson called Polarity Management (2014). We greatly honor his initial contributions. We originally taught this model using his ideas, then gradually adapted and refined our approach as we learned what better met the needs of our clients. Our approach now differs in some fundamental ways:

Replacing the Minus Sign

  • His polarity maps have a “+” on the first line and a “-” on the second line. At first we needed to continually correct what these two marks implied: “This is not a ‘pro’ and ‘con’ list, like identifying the positives and negatives about two options. Even though you see a minus sign on the second line, it really asks the downsides of over-privileging or being biased toward that pole. So you’re not asking yourself, for example, what’s negative about Consistency? You’re asking yourself what negative things inadvertently result from over-privileging Consistency over Flexibility? One day, in one of our trainings, a participant commented: “Well, why don’t you get rid of the ‘minus’ sign and instead put in a ‘greater-than’ sign?” Of course! Ever since then we’ve incorporated this into our model. You will see this “greater-than” sign in all the Polarity Maps we have included.
  • As we mentioned, most writers and trainers we have seen present Polarity Thinking as if it was a pros and cons list, following the plus and minus sign, rather than really understanding that it is only a higher-level thinking tool when people work to understand the ideas of bias and over-privileging as we have described above.

It’s Generally More About Stuckness than Flow

  • In Barry Johnson’s book there is a lot of emphasis on the flow between the four quadrants, an energetic infinity sign where we, for example, start by being Consistent (top left), then as we over-privilege Consistency we move toward the downside of Consistency (bottom left) and then move toward being more Flexible (top right), then we start to over-do Flexibility (bottom right) and move back toward more Consistency, etc. The general idea is that this movement or flow among the four boxes is an inherent aspect of polarities, and the idea is to optimize being in the top left and top right as much as possible, and minimize the time in the bottom boxes. We first taught Polarities in this way. Those who teach Polarities often use a map like this:
  • But then we realized that, in most systems, as well as within most individuals, that “infinity sign” flow among the four boxes isn’t what actually happens. Most organizations do not go from being overly Operational (Getting it Done), eventually noticing the downside of that, and then becoming Strategic and eventually overly Strategic. They stay stuck in being overly Operational. They do not step back enough and ask if they are doing the right things.
  • Similarly, almost all organizations continue to over-privilege Action over Reflection. They do not become overly Reflective, or even incorporate appropriate Reflection. And almost all organizations continue to over-privilege Individual over Collective rather than moving between those two poles.
  • In the same way, onan individual level, as we’ll discuss later when we get to the Enneagram Polarities, most of us stay stuck, most of the time, over-privileging one pole over the other. For example, one of us realized that he almost always, throughout his life, has over-privileged Doing over Being. He did not regularly notice the downside of over-privileging Doing, and then move into more Being, eventually over-privileging Being until he needed to do more Doing. He mostly has stayed stuck on the Doing side, with all the unfortunate consequences that come with that over-privileging.
  • Most leaders consistently over-privilege Task over People, rather than flowing from one to the other, because most organizational cultures have this bias. Whatever their Achilles-heel-polarity, people tend to stay “stuck,” ongoingly over-privileging one side at the expense of the other.
  • Country cultures often have their own habitual over-privileging of one quality over another, which then impacts people and organizations working within that culture. For example, running leadership programs in Canada, we have often used the polarity map of Careful & Candor, because Canadian culture tends to over-privilege the former. We would not find the same result on New York City.
  • For these reasons, we do not in general teach a flow of energy among the four quadrants, because for most situations that does not fit the experience of the system or individuals with whom we are working.
  • Now at times the “infinity loop” flow is absolutely appropriate. For the times when that flow is occurring, we sometimes include boxes on the left and right of the polarity map indicating “early warning signs” of over-privileging one side or the other. One example of this would be the polarity of My Needs & Your Needs in an intimate relationship. While some relationships have a consistent over-privileging, as those with a narcissistic flavor overly focus on their own needs at the expense of taking the perspective of their partner, while those with a codependent flavor overly focus on the needs of the other and do not take the perspective of their own needs enough. However, in most relationships we find ourselves going back and forth between these two, at times over-privileging one side, and then the other, in the eternal struggle to try to deal with this ongoing tension in an optimal way.

Why is Polarity Thinking vital for dealing with complex challenges?

The Cynefin Complexity Model (see here for more details) identifies four different problem sets in the world (Simple, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic), each requiring a different approach. Simple and Complicated problems can be seen as problems-to-be-solved. There are rules and laws you can count on. After some amount of research and applied thought we come up with a solution, whether it’s how to build a bridge or which toaster to buy.

Most of today’s leadership challenges, however, exist in the Complex domain. There is no one right answer. The same action taken five different times will likely lead to five different results. Rather than problems-to-be-solved they are generally polarities-to-be-managed-and-lived, such as Centralization & Decentralization or Stability & Change. We take action, see the results, amplify what we’re doing it it’s working, pivot if it’s not, and continually gather data to Dynamically Steer toward the desired outcome. But it’s not a linear path, and often requires living in the tension between sets of polarities.

In Gary Hamel’s February, 2009 Harvard Business Review article called “Moon Shots for Management,” Moon Shot #20 is called “better optimization of trade-offs.” He wrote:

“Organizational success in the years ahead will hinge on the ability of employees at all levels to manage seemingly irreconcilable trade-offs — between short-term earnings and long-term growth, competition and collaboration, structure and emergence, discipline and freedom, and individual and team success. Traditional systems rely on crude, universal policies that favor certain goals at the expense of others. Tomorrow’s systems must encourage healthy competition between opposing objectives and enable frontline employees to dynamically optimize key trade-offs. The aim is to create organizations that combine the exploration and learning capabilities of decentralized networks with the decision-making efficiency and focus of hierarchies. (pp. 96–97).”

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. We have a document on this page that leads you through how to draw a Polarity Map, if it’s not already clear.
  5. If you know your Enneagram Type, choosing one of the pairs we present below, one that deeply “speaks” to you, is a great place to start. We have examples of other possible polarities to choose on this page.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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?”
  10. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?”

An Example of Polarity Thinking in Political Life

Sophisticated thinkers naturally value the importance of honoring the tension between two poles. Barack Obama had his first opportunity to work formally with international leaders at the G-20 Economic Summit in March of 2009. At the press conference after the Summit he described what we might call the Independence & Interdependence polarity. In organizations this parts/whole polarity shows up as Team Needs & Organizational Needs. In the situation below it’s Country Needs & World Needs.

“In terms of local politics, look, I’m the President of the United States. I’m not the president of China; I’m not the president of Japan… I have a direct responsibility to my constituents to make their lives better to ….live what we call the American dream. And I will be judged by my effectiveness in meeting their needs and concerns.

But in an era of integration and interdependence, it is also my responsibility to lead America into recognizing that its interests, its fate is tied up with the larger world, that if we neglect or abandoned those who are suffering in poverty, that not only are we depriving ourselves of potential opportunities for markets and economic growth, but ultimately that despair may turn to violence that turns on us, that unless we are concerned about the education of all children, and not just our children, not only may we be depriving ourselves of the next great scientist who’s going to find the next new energy source that saves the planet, but we also may make people around the world much more vulnerable to anti-American propaganda.

So if I’m effective as America’s president right now, part of that effectiveness involves providing Americans insight into how their self-interest is tied up with yours. And that’s an ongoing project, because it’s not always obvious.”

Introducing The Enneagram Polarities

We developed this original contribution about 14 years ago. For those who do not know the Enneagram, we see it as the system-of-choice, by far, for generating greater self-awareness and other-awareness and then bringing out the best in ourselves as well as others. Far superior, in our perspective, to many of the ones more commonly used in business settings (Myers-Briggs, DISC, Colors, etc.) For those who are not already familiar, all we can do here is provide a brief overview.

Although we can have aspects of many Enneagram Types, at our core we are only one Type, and identifying that type is vital because each Type has a different path of development, and different elements that are most important on which to focus. Some people recognize their Enneagram Type through our training videos, but it generally takes working with a skilled Enneagram Consultant to be sure you have identified the correct type. Please contact us if you would like to learn your Enneagram Type and explore how this self-awareness tool can have a major impact on your happiness, satisfaction, and connections for the rest of your life.

We Now Have a Free Enneagram Video Training Course

Please go to the end of this article for the YouTube links and handout.

The Enneagram

  • We’re both certified Enneagram teachers and have been working with it for more than 25 years. While we cannot teach you the full system now, perhaps the brief descriptions below will be helpful and may remind you of you, or of people you know.
  • It is important to view these as an opportunity for greater self-awareness, rather than as inherent shortcoming in people that can’t be changed. People of each Enneagram Type can function at a wide range of Levels of Freedom and Awareness. At higher levels people are naturally more oriented to act in accordance with their deeper values. Their relationships are more harmonious, and they are happier and more content. They are actively self-aware. At average to lower levels people are increasing more self-oriented and unhappy, led by their habits and patterns that were formed when they were very young, and their relationships are increasingly conflictual. They operate more out of unconscious or habit-mode, unaware of the lenses that are severely impacting what they see and how they respond to it.
  • This is our chart of the Levels of Presence & Freedom, a concept from Don Riso and Russ Hudson of the Enneagram Institute. We have more free will when functioning at higher levels, more patterned and compulsive behavior when we function to lower levels. At higher levels our lives are more about contribution. As we go down the Levels we become increasingly self-focused. At higher levels relationships are more harmonious and interdependent. At lower levels they are more conflictual, and we increasingly see others in terms of whether they are meeting our needs or not. These Levels are fluid. We each have a Center of Gravity where we function most of the time, and a range of where we tend to go on our best and worst days. On any given day we will move up and down.
  • We are currently living in very challenging times, including a reduction in human connection. Few of us are unaffected by grief or anxiety. All Enneagram Types, during times of acute and chronic stress, and particularly in these challenging times, can “project” onto other people. This can mean that we see qualities in others that are really disowned parts of ourselves (“I’m not angry, but you sure are!!”). Or we think we see in others attitudes that are parts of the “story” of our Enneagram Type (“I always worry about whether people are approving of me, so I see you as being disapproving, putting me down”). Often we are feeling something (insecure, for example) and then project blame on others for why we are feeling that way.

The Enneagram Types (brief overview)

We’ve chosen to use Type Names from the Enneagram Institute, and Strivings from Mario Sikora’s work.

  • Enneagram One, The Idealist, Striving to Feel Perfect. At their best they are rational, dependable and highly principled. They care about doing the “right thing” and aligning their lives to their values. At average levels they tend to measure themselves and others against an internal standard of “shoulds,” and both they and the world tend to fall short of the mark. They are aware, or hyper-aware, of expectations. Under stress they become more rigid, critical and judgmental of themselves and others. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming moody, temperamental and self-pitying. They can project that others view them as bad or defective, or that others are flaky and irresponsible.
  • Enneagram Two, The Helper/Mentor, Striving to Feel Connected. At their best they are empathetic, kind, compassionate, and caring. They naturally attune to others and enjoy being of service. At average levels they can “give to get” because their self-image and value depends on being viewed as “helpful.” Under stress they become more intrusive and blind to their own needs. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming angry and punishing of themselves and others. They can project that others see them as unlovable, or that others are self-absorbed and hypersensitive.
  • Enneagram Three, The Achiever, Striving to Feel Outstanding. At their best they are authentic, high performing, adaptable, admirable and effective. At average levels they are constantly driven because their self-esteem lies in being viewed as outstanding by themselves and others. Under stress they become more chameleon-like (doing what they perceive it takes to be viewed the way they want to be seen), task-focused (at the expense of themselves and the people around them), and deceptive. They can also respond to acute stress by zoning out and detaching. They can project that others view them as worthless, or that others are anxious and insecure.
  • Enneagram Four, The Individualist, Striving to Feel Unique. At their best they are creative, unique, sensitive and deep. At average levels they can overly identify with negative feeling states (envy, past hurts and pain, and feeling misunderstood or unseen by others). Under stress they become more self-absorbed, envious, moody, and hypersensitive. They can also respond to acute stress by excessively taking care of others. They can project that others see them as having no significance, or that others are critical and heartless.
  • Enneagram Five, The Observer/Investigator, Striving to Feel Competent. At their best they are curious, insightful, focused and integrative thinkers. At average levels they tend to withdraw from the world in order to make sense of it and resist sharing who they are. This is especially true if they perceive they are not in a position to show they “know” what they are expected to know. Under stress they become even more withdrawn, detached, and antagonistic. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming flighty and escapist. They can project that others view them as incompetent, or that others are angry and intimidating.
  • Enneagram Six, The Troubleshooter, Striving to Feel Secure. At their best they are committed, team-oriented, trustworthy and dedicated to provide needed security to themselves and others. At average levels their minds go towards negative thinking (what if…..what could go wrong) and they overly focus on safety and security. Under stress they become more anxious, indecisive, reactive and suspicious. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming workaholic and deceptive. They can project that others are unwilling to support them, or are the ones contributing to a lack of security, or that others are lazy and stubborn.
  • Enneagram Seven, The Enthusiast, Striving to Feel Excited. At their best they are playful, energetic, spontaneous and joyful. At average levels they can restlessly pursue positive experiences, be impatient, have trouble focusing and committing, and be very irritated by any tasks seen as repetitive, tedious or boring. Under stress they become more restless, flighty, and distracted. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming sharply critical and judgmental. They can project that others are trapping them in pain and deprivation, or that others are antagonistic and detached.
  • Enneagram Eight, The Challenger, Striving to Feel Powerful. At their best they are magnanimous, vital, championing and courageous. At average levels they can protect themselves (consciously or not) by keeping others off-balance and hiding their vulnerability. Under stress they become more combative, intimidating and bullying. They can also respond to acute stress by shutting down and withdrawing. They can project that others are trying to harm or control them, or that others are needy and intrusive.
  • Enneagram Nine, The Peacemaker, Striving to Feel Comfortable. At their best they are calm, peaceful, supportive and harmonious. They are natural mediators in conflictual situations. At average levels they can “check out” to avoid conflict or having their comfort disturbed. Under stress they become more disengaged, overly compliant, stubborn and passive-aggressive. They can also respond to acute stress by becoming highly anxious and fearful. They can project that others are disconnected from them, or that others are superficial and inauthentic.

The Enneagram Polarities

Every Enneagram Type has two connecting lines, as you can see on the Enneagram chart. These lines are given different names and meanings in different systems: Line of Integration, Line of Stress, Line of Security, etc. While each of us does not change our Enneagram Type during our lifetime, we take on higher and lower qualities of other types, depending on our reactions and responses to life situations, and the Level of Freedom & Awareness at which we are functioning in our core Type in those moments.

While this is the common use of the connecting lines, this is not the basis of our contribution of the Enneagram Polarities. Each Enneagram Type is also called a “point” — Point One, Point Two, etc. Michael Goldberg, an Enneagram teacher, once said something like, “What is a point? It’s the extreme end of a line.” The implication was that, when functioning at higher levels, each Enneagram Type can move more freely and in a healthy way along both of its connecting lines, rather than being locked in an extreme or fixed way of interacting with the world. We took that insight and then integrated it with our Polarity work.

Let’s use an example to show how the Enneagram Polarities work. One of us is an Enneagram Three. You will see on the Enneagram Symbol that there are two connecting lines, from Type Three to Type Six and Type Nine. Here are our two corresponding Polarity Tables. They show pairs of polarities that correspond to each combination. So, for the Nine/Three combination, you will seeing the polarity pairs Being & Doing, Accommodating & Asserting, Background & Foreground, etc. For the Nine/Six combination, you will see Me & We, Confidence & Doubt, Standing Out & Fitting In, etc.

These tables are not complete. We keep adding to them or adjusting them over time.

Here is the Polarity Map he created on one of the Nine/Three polarities, Doing & Being. We always start with the pole we think a person, team or organization is likely to over-privilege. If he had been an Enneagram Nine he would have done a Polarity Map on Being & Doing.

Completing this map was powerful for him. The bottom left quadrant really brought home how his agitated Doing-ness had created problems throughout his life, and how important it was to integrate the high end of Being. Because he had already done a lot of inner work around this issue, reflecting on the high side of Being was deeply moving for him. He now reflects regularly on this Polarity Map (but not yet often enough, given his propensity for Doing!) as a way to remind him of how he would love to live his life.

Notice how he found it helpful to fill in the top and bottom boxes: The goal that would come from balancing this polarity, and the fear of what his life would be about if he was unable to do so.

And here is the Polarity Map he did on the Three/Six polarity of Me & We. Again, if he was an Enneagram Six it would have been the polarity of We & Me.

As with all polarity maps, the high side of Me (top left) is beautiful. But look what happens when it is over-privileged (bottom left). When combined with the high side of We (top right) he saw that resulting in “A Beautiful Life,” while not correcting his imbalance would lead to being “Chronically Unhappy.”

The other author is an Enneagram Eight. Here are those two charts, and her Polarity Maps.

Based on the Eight/Two line:

And based on the Eight/Five line:

Below are all the other Enneagram Polarity charts we have created. If you know your Enneagram Type we strongly encourage you to do at least one polarity map for each of your connecting lines.

Clear Impact Consulting Group is Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC and Dr. Sandra L. Hill. We are organizational/team effectiveness consultants, executive coaches, and leadership development specialists. We hope you have found our approach to Polarity Thinking intriguing, including its application to the Enneagram. It is a central part of our capacity-building work with individuals, couples, leaders, teams and organizations. Please let us know if you have any comments or questions. Our website is and our email We open-source all of our curriculum. Please see for all our Medium articles and our website for additional materials.

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Clear Impact Consulting Group

Building individual and organizational capacity through executive coaching, organizational/team effectiveness consulting and leadership development.