The Power of Polarity Thinking

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

Vulnerability & Vision

Systemic Vulnerability & Vision

Important Caveats about Polarity Thinking

Awareness ≠ Change

  • 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)
  • 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.
  • 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.

The Power of Context

  • Individual over Collective
  • Task over People
  • Operational over Strategic

How Contexts Drive Thinking and Action

Capacity-Building and the limits of Heroic Leadership

  • 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

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?

Using Polarity Maps for Lasting Change and Transformation

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

  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

Introducing The Enneagram Polarities

We Now Have a Free Enneagram Video Training Course

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)

  • 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

Clear Impact Enneagram Training Videos



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

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Clear Impact Consulting Group

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