Last Month’s 3 Key Points
1. A BEST BOSS EVER, is a boss others choose to follow. You cannot agree with every person you work with on every issue. Some issues can be polarizing. Even though it’s hard to admit, we do bring our politics and personal beliefs into work. Employees are curious about your positions and beliefs because they don’t want you to judge them or try to make them wrong. Agreeing to disagree is okay but it doesn’t enhance the relationship. What enhances your relationship is working hard to understand and appreciate their point of view – even if you disagree. Don’t try to convince others of your point of view. Choose to positively influence others – resist the urge to change their mind.
2. Excellent leaders prepare for difficult conversations. Not preparing is the same as preparing to fail. Your job is to facilitate respectful dialogue, not win the debate. You will communicate more powerfully and prolifically if you know where the landmines are and determine a way to work around them. You will be able to connect with people and not just communicate. So often, communication is two monologues happening at the same time. Your ability to emotionally connect with someone when the conversation is high risk and difficult raises your leadership effectiveness dramatically.
3. Effective leaders are intentional about leading the conversation. Fully engaging dialogues require one person to take the risk to start them, to moderate them when they get off track, and to change the directions of the conversation when it is going the wrong way. When was the last time you stopped trying to convince them of your position and became curious about what they believed and why. Asking curious questions that stimulate conversation does not mean you agree with their position. It means you care about understanding what they think and why.
“Paradoxically, there is also considerable persuasion power in inquiry and listening.”
― Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
This month, I am focusing on how leaders use polarity thinking to lead themselves and others more effectively. Barry Johnson is the author of Polarity Management and the first person I know who wrote about the Polarity Management model in 1992. His simple definition of a polarity is: a set of poles or positions that appear to be opposites, creating a potential either/or situation. For instance: should we drive the business to grow rapidly or maximize profits? A leader may ask: should I hold them accountable or be more compassionate? A major challenge for leaders is to not treat polarities as problems…
Point # 1 – A “Best Boss Ever” recognizes polarities.
Outstanding leaders know that when they try to solve a polarity as if it was a problem that has a solution, they will fail. At best, they will identify a symptom and address a part of the problem. Polarities are not solvable. Knowing the difference and noticing them is important to your success as a leader.
A problem has a solution or at least a conclusive answer. Because polarities are two seemingly opposing values they cannot be solved – they have to be managed. Have you ever attempted to solve a problem that was the downside of one of the poles? If a polarity is not accurately identified, it cannot be successfully managed.
What’s fascinating about a polarity is that even though the two opposite ends of the polarity seem to be opposed, they actually complement each other. Neither is sufficient on their own – they are interdependent.
Finally, exceptional leaders will notice which way they ‘lean’ (which end of the polarity is their preference). If you lean toward one pole, it is important to become aware and adjust your mindset. See point #2.
Here’s a few intriguing leadership polarities:
· Driving growth AND maximizing profits.
· Working with only the top performers AND managing those who meet expectations.
· Creating close relationships with team members AND keeping a distance.
· Holding team members accountable AND giving them autonomy.
· Fighting for more FTE’s & Budget AND sacrificing to meet the company’s objectives.
· Being direct in expressing your opinions AND being diplomatic.
· Focusing on today AND planning for the future.
· Being self-confident AND being humble.
· Delegating decision making AND making quick decisions.
· Telling people what to do AND letting them figure it out on their own.
“The mind is the enemy of intuition, according to many New Age adherents, but I don’t buy that. I look at everything in terms of polarities – two ends of the same continuum. Young/old, male/female, individuality/conformity, work/play, freedom/constraint, right/left, day/night, life/death, rational/emotional, and so on.” Shakti Gawain
Point # 2 – Resist the urge to fall in love with one pole.
I have biases and I am judgmental. For instance, if a company profitably grows, I believe additional profits should be shared with employees, either directly through bonuses or indirectly through improved employee benefits. I’m more a giver than taker and lean towards sharing profits. However, cash is king and cash flow problems can be significant. Therefore, the other end of the pole would suggest we should keep all the additional profits for cash flow purposes and future growth.
Which is right? They are both right – “both/and” thinking! How do you ‘manage’ this polarity?
When you judge other people who are defending the other end of the polarity, you create defensiveness, and push the ‘either/or’ agenda. Extraordinary leaders will create environments and engage people in a positive exchange of ideas such that a meaningful discussion about the polarity can occur. They can only do this if they art not attached to a pole.
It’s normal to have a preference but an outstanding leader will let go of any attachment to a pole, so that they can facilitate their team’s dialogue about the pluses and minuses of each pole. They help their team become less judgmental about the other pole and learn to dialogue about how the team can take advantage of the pluses from both poles, not just one. This is easier said than done.
“Mind is dual, it always divides things into polar opposites: the conqueror and the conquered, the observer and the observed, the object and the subject, the day and the night. It goes on dividing things which are not divided. Neither is the day divided from the night, nor is birth divided from death. They are one energy. But mind goes on dividing everything into polarities, opposites. Nothing is opposite in existence; every contradiction is only apparent. Deep down all contradictions are meeting together.”
Point # 3 – Lead others to ‘manage’ polarities.
Every pole has an upside and a downside. If you allow yourself and your team to think in a binary way (either/or) – ‘it’s either this or that,’ you will usually choose one side of the polarity, and at some point, will experience the downside of the pole you chose.
Managing the polarity means working the two poles at the same time with “dynamic tension” and not let either pole win to the exclusion of the other pole. John Sherer, who wrote “11 Polarities Great Leaders Manage Well” states: “You do not want the tension to go away. You want to utilize it, to keep the system benefiting from both poles.”
Many leaders desire to remove tension because it may feel like conflict. Do you have any team members who see everything through the lens of “either/or”? Extraordinary leaders help people move from: “I am right, and you are wrong” to “we are both right.” It is your responsibility to develop your team to become excellent identifiers of polarities and are able to constructively discuss and debate (if necessary) about the pluses and minuses of reach pole. The stronger your team is at diagnosing polarities, the more output and productivity your team will be able to accomplish.
“Extraordinary leaders provide wonderful examples how to manage polarities to gain benefits from both poles. They develop their team and hold them accountable to do the same.”
Three Reflection Questions
1. What problems do I have that are actually polarities?
2. What poles do I have a strong bias towards?
3. How can I lead others to have better conversations and learn how to manage the polarities our team is facing?
Three Things to Read to Go Deeper
1. Using ‘polarity thinking’ to achieve sustainable positive outcomes (Healthcare) by Laurie Levknecht
2. Polarity Management – Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems by Barry Johnson
3. Are You Facing a Problem? Or a Polarity? Center for Creative Leadership Article