The Polarity Paradox

Over the last year, my team has been engaged in some pretty deep and intensive leadership training.  Our latest was Polarity Management.

Polarity Management was developed by Barry Johnson in 1975 as an alternative to traditional problem solving approaches.  In essence (and as Bert Parlee explains) ….

“The Polarity Management model and set of principles are a user-friendly way to deal with all polarities in life. Polarities are ongoing, chronic issues that are unavoidable and unsolvable.

Attempting to address them with traditional problem solving skills only makes things worse. There is significant competitive advantage for those leaders, teams, or organizations that can distinguish between a problem to solve and a polarity to manage and are effective with both“.

In our western education system, we are taught and very skilled at yes or no, either/or problem solving. The issue is that not all problems are solvable, some just need to be managed with grace, care and dexterity.  The example that they give is breathing.  Breathing is not a binary operation.  You don’t just breath in.  You don’t just breath out. You need to maintain a balance of both or its literally life or death.

As I’ve been processing through this training, I’m realizing…All the really big, most important and most impactful problems we have, in the world, are polarity issues.  But, we treat them like puzzles we can solve or fights we can win and then move on.  Not so.  In fact, the more I think about this, the more I realize that these polarities are all around me, every day and in every situation. No wonder everyone is so frustrated right now (myself included!). And our current way of trying to solve them (argue, fight, blame) is NOT working. I believe they need to be addressed with love, compassion, grace and peace.

Some examples from my own life….

Parenting – the ultimate polarity. What works for one kid, doesn’t work for the next. (at least not in my house). Kay is a great example. She is independent, hates to be told what to do and very self sufficient. However, she’s 15 years old and her frontal lobe has not developed fully and her rational, problem solving skills are weak.  As a parent I see it as my job to help her be a good adult; learning social norms, setting high exceptions for herself and others, knowing her values and living them. As a 15 year old girl, she sees her job as making friends, having fun, doing what she likes and figuring out where her boundaries are.  Not a good combination and not one that I can solve.  I have tried natural consequences, repercussions, setting rules, star charts, free range parenting … you name it. Anything and everything I think might help “solve” this dynamic and help her get motivated to learn responsibility and a bit of adulting before she’s out on her own. She sees this as nagging, Tiger Mom, helicopter parenting, irritating and overall completely ineffective. We are at a stalemate.  Its not my way or her way. Its not either ‘be a kid’ or ‘be an adult’.  I need to figure out to let her enjoy being a kid, discover who she is AND know that there are basic expectations to being a functioning adult all while being told I’m “annoying” and that she “doesn’t care”. (I saw an Instagram post recently that said – Be kind to everyone, you never know if they are parenting a teenager.  So true, I almost cried).  I am trying to do this with love and compassion. Remembering what its like to be her age, showing her affection the way she wants to receive it (not how I want to give it) and a steady mantra of “this too shall pass”.

Politics – another deep seated polarity, especially with the current political environment. I think part of our issue as a country right now is that we want action, answers and results and we want them ‘OUR’ way.   There is no room for the opinions of the people across the aisle and there is very little (at least in the media) appetite for dialogue, listening, finding common ground and building bridges. This one is really hard for me. As a liberal, I have some deeply held beliefs at that everyone deserves to be loved, heard, get access to better opportunities and have their story honored. I know that significant historic sea change hasn’t happened through negotiation but through visible, uncomfortable and often aggressive behavior. However, I also believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, respectful dialogue, challenging ideas vs attacking the person, innocent until proven guilty and that there is more than one way to solve our nations problems.  This is a daily juggling act as I see updates on social media and engage in my (daily) debates with my conservative son.  I’m trying hard to hold all these values simultaneously but, it’s exhausting.  I believe that peace is possible, even if its just in the moment between 2 people. I look for that in every conversation/debate/disagreement that I have with family and friends.  It helps remind me that there aren’t different sides, just different perspectives.

Leadership – like parenting, for me, leadership is about bringing out the best in people while challenging them to develop their skills. I want to invite people to the edge of their comfort zone and then nurturing them to grow into who they could be as leaders. I try to set high standards and then remove roadblocks and provide tools to get there. I love to empower people to chase their ideas but also know that there are times I need to be more directive and specific.  And, to make it even more complicated, like parenting, none of the people are the same, they all need me to do this differently.  I’ll admit, I have a default leadership style that I overuse. I’ve been given feedback that I can be too collaborative (when they just want me to make the damn decision) and can draw guardrails further apart than they would draw them for themselves (undermining their confidence when I was actually trying to bolster their confidence).  And, considering I spend more time with my team than I do with my family, my actions here matter greatly.  These dynamics are things that I pay attention to daily, sometimes well and many times not up to my own standards. However, I do think my good intentions, love for my team and respect for them as individuals does come through. The greatest compliment that I get is … “Wow, you really ARE like this…no pretense, totally consistent and very authentic. You show up, everyday, exactly as the person you told us you would.”

So, what do we do?  Going back to the beginning and why its such a great example.  Breathe. Deeply.  Slowly.  Then Breathe again.  Love. Find peace in the moment. See the other person as a full human being. Respect everyone.

These issues aren’t going away.  They can’t be solved in a 4 hour brainstorming session or at a innovation conference. These issues are polarities we need to manage, (hopefully) doing it with love, authenticity, grace and humility.

Tell me.  How do YOU manage these polarities?  (Really, I’m looking for ideas!!)