Manage polarities to address challenges

Dave Knutson
Dave Knutson

How many times have you encountered a situation that feels like “whack a mole” or the movie “Groundhog Day?” Recurring problems might not be what they seem. Managing what Barry Johnson describes as “polarities” could offer not only insights, but also strategies to better deal with challenges that arise.

Johnson starts with a question: Is this a problem to be solved or a polarity to be managed? Problems are characterized by their finality: “What is 2 plus 2?” or “Where will we move the warehouse?” A polarity is defined as two seemingly opposite, but interdependent, poles.

The simplest example of a polarity is what you’re doing at this very moment: breathing. While exhaling, we inevitably arrive at the downside of exhaling. Likewise, with inhaling we inevitably experience the need to expel carbon dioxide and can no longer expand our lung capacity. Polarity management teaches awareness of the downsides and encourages a timely shift to the upsides of the opposite pole.

The principles of polarity management call for a change in our perceptions when we encounter a polarity. We start thinking of seemingly opposites as being interdependent and use the word “and” to describe the challenge rather than “or.” As our terminology changes, so does our consciousness. We no longer see one pole as the answer, but see the need to shift poles and become more comfortable moving between the poles of a polarity.

Let’s use the individual and team polarity as an example.

Many organizations tout teamwork as a core feature of their cultures. But focus entirely on teamwork and downsides will emerge: excessive conformity; loss of individual aspirations, creativity and initiative; and neglecting self, to name a few.

While deeply embedded in a medical products sales team, I recognized the impact of the individual and team polarity on sales performance. When we decided to focus on teamwork, we could see overdoing the teamwork pole would affect our top performers. We carefully planned for a later shift to individual recognition. When you manage a polarity, pursing one side is not permanent. We recognized the need to bring the team approach back on the table when contributors felt disconnected.

So when  — not if — you experience the downsides of the team polarity, shift to individual to capture the upside of the other interdependent pole. This includes such opposites as individual creativity and uniqueness. But if we focus on individual, we encounter such downsides as isolation and selfishness as well as the loss of common direction and goals and team support. When we shift back to team, we’ll capture synergy, selflessness, team support and the other upsides inherent to teamwork.

Johnson’s work helps to visually map polarities. Documenting the two poles of the polarity and citing the upsides and downsides of both poles bring teams to heightened awareness of the effects and rationale for choosing to pursue one pole over the other. A consensus then emerges on timing and when to shift. Other polarities your organization might need to manage include planning and action, internal focus and external focus, stability and change and listening and confronting.

The stability and change polarity offers a sense of the forces at work in dealing with polarities. One of the key advantages is the ability to adapt rather than remaining stuck in solving the problem. By seeing challenges as polarities rather than problems, you’re better able to respond to external environmental factors as well as unforeseen conditions.

Another helpful polarity is planning and action. Introducing polarities to work teams can be a strong platform to manage the planning and action polarity, preventing the work group or project team from getting stuck on action without sufficient research and thought and planning without applying and implementing. Both poles are necessary in achieving results.

Support groups in larger organizations such as accounting, information technology and human resources can learn how to best deploy their expertise by examining the centralized and decentralized polarity. When HR gets too centralized, it doesn’t respond to the unique needs of business units. When HR is too decentralized, though, inconsistencies in core policies arise.

The key to managing any polarity is awareness the poles aren’t the answer. The poles are temporary shifts toward effective action.