This guest post has been submitted by Cole Pellicano from Andiron. I met Cole at the Institute for Transformational Leadership Network annual conference several weeks ago. I was impressed by his Andiron team’s focus on polarities and invited him to write a post for this newsletter. You can check out Andiron by clicking on this link: https://andiron.com/

As a leader, have you ever struggled with questions like these?
• Do we draw a hard line in the sand or worry about being diplomatic?
• Do we drive empowerment in the organization or continue providing the direction that ensures success?
• Do we do what’s best for the bottom line or what’s best for the environment?
• Do we give in to our partner’s need for collaboration or do we maintain our competitive spirit?
• Do we drive to meet our team’s goals or support another team so we do what’s best for the whole?
These kinds of questions, illustrate polarities – they require us to navigate two seemingly opposite states simultaneously. Polarities can create tension or strife in teams that don’t know how to navigate them effectively and they can be leveraged for higher performance and effectiveness – if leaders know how to do so.

Polarities in organizations have received increased focus in both the popular and academic press during the past two decades. The growing complexity of organizations, and the interconnectedness of the global marketplace, has magnified the frequency with which organizations and leaders are faced with seemingly unsolvable situations that may have two or more opposing solutions.

Regrettably, few, if any, authors teach leaders how to actually develop the skill to navigate these tensions. While many talk or write about about polarities, few demonstrate how to successfully address them.

One strategy for effectively navigating polarities is to develop a “both/and” mindset to supplement our natural tendency to think “either/or.” When polarities like the questions listed above are approached only from an “either/or” perspective, their inherent tensions can turn dysfunctional or even destructive (e.g., draw a hard line in the sand OR be diplomatic; focus on being collaborative OR competitive, etc.).

However, when leaders and systems are able to think and act from a “both/and” perspective they can outperform those who don’t think that way. Then change efforts can move forward with increased speed, less resistance, and more sustainability over time (Emerson).

Unlike traditional problems, which are typically puzzles involving independent solutions (e.g., Do we hire Vendor A or Vendor B?), polarities require solutions that are a more complex blend of both poles. Knowing how to navigate using a both/and mindset helps leaders maximize the benefits of both poles while minimizing their overuse. This skill is a key differentiator and competitive advantage for individuals, teams, and organizations (Smith & Lewis).

Unfortunately, this navigation isn’t as easy as it seems—in fact, some researchers say it is nearly impossible for many adults unless they receive help (Garvey Berger; Kegan; Cook-Greuter). One reason for this challenge is leaders typically maintain a preference for one pole over the other (e.g., “I like Flexibility a little more than Structure”).

This viewpoint can become problematic when leaders start to attach part of their identities, how they want to be known in the work world, to that pole (e.g. “So, I’m the one that helps the team stay adaptable, think differently, and adjust as needed”) Without realizing it, they begin to villainize those who prefer the other pole (e.g. “They want so much structure! They make things so rigid with their need for control!”). When we lack a both/and mindset, these dynamics can distract us from our leadership mission, at best, but all too often can destroy relationships, damage morale, and derail team success.

The good news is there are tools to help individuals and organizations develop a “both/and” mindset. One of the most effective options is using a sense-making tool like the Polarity Navigator (Emerson & Lewis). Mapping is an easy technique for leaders and teams to capture a polarity in a way that allows them to understand it and take action to navigate it effectively.

It helps leaders and teams design change initiatives focused on expanding to the new state without losing the benefits of what brought them to the current state. The mapping process is both simple and complex. It can be learned and developed over time, allowing leaders and teams to foster and hold a both/and mindset when necessary.

When this occurs, polarities can help leaders improve, results, enhance, communication,, increase morale and deepen relationships in ways that produce more sustainable success.

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