We are all familiar with polarities, or chronic tensions, wicked problems, or paradoxes typically inside our organizations. You might experience it via the classic centralized versus decentralized polarity / tension, or a detailed versus ad hoc approach to planning, or even at an interpersonal level when someone speaks with candour versus blunt talk.

At the heart of polarity management is the understanding that polarities are interconnected sets of values that come in a pair (Joy and Seriousness; Joy and Sorrow; Joy and Grieving, for example). We tend to only focus on one pole, or the “desirable” value because that’s what we’re aiming for but because we neglect the upsides of the other value pair we inadvertently end up creating the downsides of the overly emphasized values which can cause the energy in that system to compensate and balance. For example, if we love a decentralized approach because of all its benefits like agility but ignore the upsides/benefits of a centralized approach (efficiency, standardization) we may find ourselves noticing that the decentralization has produced undesirable results and costs and may want a bit more of the centralized approach.

Said differently, when we only identify the value itself without identifying its pair we set ourselves up for its absence because we are always trying to have a “YES” or “AND” situation of dynamic balance, of harvesting the good stuff while staving off the downsides of each value. So that means that an individual or team must first:

  • Look within to identify that which is core to their identity (values)
  • Identify its pair
  • Identify the downsides of both values
  • Identify early indicators that we are overly emphasizing one value or pair at the expense of the other.

Polarities are always about power. They’re always about energy. Energy always moves through systems, it’s unavoidable, unsolvable, unstoppable, and indestructible. We sit in it, it’s available to us. You have to intentionally empower both poles or support the power of both poles. Holding power and sharing power are a fundamental pair and you can see it between dictatorships and democracies, or between parties. An election is essentially a way to see if it’s time to shift the energy of self-governance.

Some classic polarities:

  • Taking care of yourself and sharing
  • Spending and savings
  • Challenge and support
  • Confidence and humility
  • Data driven decisions and Instinct and experience driven decisions

Strategies employed by organizations to manage polarities more effectively

  • Framing: both – and (versus either – or)
  • Differentiating: it’s NOT about compromising and trade-offs (you want to be clear what you’re trying to create from both poles)
  • Integrating: both poles serve on another and the whole

Here’s a polarity map, a handy little tool that helps groups articulate the up and downsides of interconnected values pairs. By doing so, you can be as conscious about what “good looks like” and “what bad looks like” along with some simple techniques for continuously generating more of the “good stuff” as well as early indicators (heads-up!!) that the “bad stuff” might be sneaking in. When we are consciously managing the tensions between our poles via dialogue and reflection as a group we are being adaptable as leaders and a team. The polarity’s upsides and downsides are always just concepts; it’s the meaning making that people do within a decision context (budgeting, making decision trade-offs, dealing with unanticipated impacts, etc) that this model becomes especially helpful because it’s helping people manage the particular value (the part) against the larger whole of your desired culture and brand.