Polarity, by James Greengrass

The human brain defaults to seeing things in an “either/or” framework.  Either that rustling in the underbrush is a threat or it is not.  The person approaching me has hostile intent or they do not.  This proposal is beneficial or it is not.  That framework also shapes the way we evaluate leadership.

Our culture tends to treat “leader” as synonymous with “problem solver”.  An effective leader solves problems.  An ineffective leader does not.  This “black and white” view is intuitively satisfying (translation: it lines up with our brain’s default settings) but how true is it?  If every “problem” can be solved with this “either/or” approach then why are there so many apparently intractable “problems” in our work, our lives, our society?

Barry Johnson has produced some wonderful work on the concept of “polarities”.  A problem is a situation that can be solved with a simple decision (e.g. do we meet for coffee at Starbucks or Tim Horton’s).  A polarity is an ongoing tension between two interdependent things.  An example is the “Saving/Spending” polarity, which exists in both personal and public finances.  It is ongoing in that the question (to Save or to Spend) never goes away.  Saving and Spending are interdependent in that both are necessary.  The tension between the two could be summarized (albeit simplistically) as follows using Johnson’s methodology.

Saving (+)

  • Future Security
  • No stress due to debt
Spending (+)

  • Seizing valuable opportunities
  • Able to enjoy life
Saving (-)

  • Missing out on valuable opportunities
  • Reduced satisfaction
Spending (-)

  • Risk of insolvency
  • Stress and anxiety

If this is seen as a problem rather than a polarity the advocate of Saving will focus on the positive side of Saving and emphasize the negative side of Spending.  The advocate of Spending will do the opposite.  (Sound familiar?)

Many difficulties are created when we treat polarities as problems and expect to be able to solve them “once and for all” with a “bold” or “brilliant” solution.  Polarities cannot be “solved”, only managed effectively.  A mentor of mine uses the analogy of driving down the road.  The two “poles” of the polarity (e.g. Saving or Spending) are the two ditches.  Staying between them is the art of Polarity Management which consists of making constant, subtle course corrections, sometimes in the direction of one “pole” and sometimes in the direction of the other.  Treating a polarity as a problem to be solved is akin to choosing which ditch to drive into and only creates a new set of “issues”.

Polarity Management is not natural.  Our brains are hard-wired to see things in terms of problems that can be answered in a simple “yes” or “no”.  This can lead us to what Johnson calls the “One Pole Myth”, the belief that if we focus exclusively on one end of the polarity we can minimize its negative consequences and totally avoid the negative effects of the other end.  Intuitively satisfying and completely false.  If one pole is overemphasized, then its negative consequences begin to predominate.  If this overemphasis persists then the negative consequences of both poles begin to appear.  

In our example, suppose our Saver insisted on never spending money on vehicle maintenance.  For two years things go well, “look at the money we are saving”.  Then the engine seizes and the vehicle must be replaced immediately with lots of stress and anxiety and no ability to take advantage of a sale.  (An equally unpleasant scenario could be envisioned if the Spender’s views were followed.)

As you progress in responsibility as an organizational leader, your “Inbox” is going to contain fewer problems to be solved and more polarities to be managed.  How will you tell the difference?  How will you manage those polarities?  How will you help others to see a polarity where they are accustomed to seeing a problem to manage?  

James GreengrassJames Greengrass is a Certified Executive Coach (Royal Roads University) and is a member of the International Coach Federation. He brings to Fortifico many years of experience in organizational leadership both as a senior officer in the Canadian Armed Forces and as an executive in the Alberta Public Service. A Practitioner and Mentor in the discipline of Active Engagement for Mindful Leadership, James is experienced in assisting individuals and groups to move to places of greater understanding and effectiveness.

For more information on James, please visit Fortifico Leadership Support Services.