Are You Facing a Problem? Or a Polarity?

If you feel caught balancing the tension of “both/and” or taking sides with “either/or” thinking, you’re not alone. But not everything is a problem to solve; sometimes leaders are facing a polarity to manage.

Are You Facing a Problem? Or a Polarity?

Part of Effective Leadership Is Learning to Manage Polarities

A decade ago, leaders would agree on a strategy and focus on it relentlessly. Grow, grow, grow, the mantra might be; don’t get hung up on cost savings or consolidation.

Then the downside of a growth-only focus would appear — bloated infrastructure, cost overruns, inefficiencies — and the pendulum would shift the other way: Cut, trim, be efficient.

Today, if you ask the question,Should I focus on growth or efficiency?” the answer is likely to be: Yes. Focus on both. And do both well.

The truth is, a lot goes unresolved in every workplace. You race to produce short-term deliverables, while long-term goals loom unaddressed. Individuals hammer away at their tasks, while team progress stagnates. You struggle with the balance between building workplace relationships and just getting the work done.

The bad news is that there are no solutions to these problems. The good news is that these aren’t problems. These are polarities.

This both/and thinking is making life more complicated for managers up and down the organization. But it stems from the reality that everything isn’t just another problem to solve.

What’s the Difference Between a Problem and a Polarity?

  • A problem can have a right — or best — answer. A solution exists.
  • A polarity — also described as a paradox, conundrum, or contradiction — is a dilemma that is ongoing, unsolvable, and contains seemingly opposing ideas.

We usually think of polarities in adversarial terms, such as:

  • Growth vs. consolidation
  • Short term vs. long term
  • Innovation vs. efficiency
  • Centralization vs. decentralization
  • Change vs. stability
  • Responsibility vs. freedom

And while it’s easy to see these alternatives as directly opposed and in conflict, in truth, polarities are complementary and interdependent.

Polarities aren’t just about business strategy; they show up in choices about leadership and culture, too. What is the right choice? Empathy or toughness? Keeping control or empowering others? Staying on task or working on the relationship?

How Leaders Should Handle a Polarity

To work with polarities, you need to be able to see both perspectives clearly and at the same time. The trick isn’t to solve a polarity or to make a choice and move on. Instead, you handle a polarity by first recognizing what it is, and second, learning how to mentally and practically move through the ebbs and flows a polarity presents.

Take the example of tasks and relationships. Teams who come together quickly to solve urgent problems immediately face the challenge of quickly engaging the team in the essential tasks and establishing quality working relationships.

If the team focuses exclusively on getting down to business and results, then the team can fail to bond in critical ways, which leads to a lack of trust and commitment. On the other hand, if the team overemphasizes relationship-building, the team is at risk of not meeting its objectives.

But that’s not to say that your poles must always be in balance. There will be times when a given pole must take precedent over its counterpart.

Managing polarities can also help with unnecessary conflict. Many teams incorrectly identify an issue as either/or and have “sides” as a result. Polarities let both sides be right, and the organization wins.

What does this look like in practical terms?

We draw on the work of Barry Johnson, creator of Polarity Thinking®, in various leadership programs and in our customized leadership development engagements with clients, to help teams better understand and respond to issues that don’t have fixed solutions.

  • Identify one or more key polarities that you are facing right now in your business. How are you, and the larger organization, handling it? Where can you change the conversation from either/or to both/and?
  • Use a mapping technique to help spot when you are overdoing one pole to the exclusion of the other. For 2 techniques designed to help map the polarity, see how to manage paradox.

The next time you’re wrestling with a challenge or conflict, ask: “Is this a problem to solve or a polarity to deal with?”

If you stop asking “Can we have both?” and instead push for ideas and answers around, “How can we have both?” you’ll find new approaches that allow you to move forward.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Build your team’s ability to recognize a problem vs. a polarity, and their capacity for handling polarities in leadership. Partner with us to craft a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Change & Disruption, Collaboration & Teamwork, Conflict Resolution, Leadership Paradox & Polarity, Thinking & Acting Strategically, and more.


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November 18, 2022
Leading Effectively Staff
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Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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