The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting all of us with deep challenges to our habitual ways of approaching problems. For instance, do I meet my obligations by going back to the workplace as usual or do I support my family by staying totally at home? That question parallels the work versus family tension we have always seen, but today it is raised to a near-existential tension. Interestingly, the same answer applies with and without the pandemic: recognize that it is a dilemma and treat it as a polarity.
This means recognizing that it is not an either-or question, as we are prone to see it, but rather, it is a dilemma, a polarity that raises the question of how we might choose A and B. A polarity occurs when we really want to get the best of both A and B and avoid the worst of both A and B, all at the same time. Furthermore, you have a polarity when doing all of one and none of the other will result in unacceptably negative outcomes, no matter which of the two seemingly incompatible alternatives you choose.
Organizational life is filled with polarities, although we often mis-cast them as right/wrong problems. Reduce cost vs. improve quality, recognize the individual vs. recognize the team, centralize coordination vs. decentralize initiatives, standardization vs. innovation — we see them all the time. We think “versus” when we should be thinking “and,” even when, in fact, they are both desirable in their own right. Polarities are opposing viewpoints and/or perspectives which do not function well independently. The objective of managing polarities is to get the best of opposites, to capitalize on the natural tension between two or more poles, creating a channel for creative energy resulting in superior outcomes that bring us the advantages of each in a balance that avoids the downside of overemphasizing either.
Let’s consider the seemingly incompatibles of standardization or innovation. Too much standardization (to the point of stopping innovation) can lead to stultification and losing out to nimble competition, but too much innovation (without a care for standardization) can result in quality control disasters and manufacturing chaos. At this time of COVID-19, innovation teams are being called together within businesses. If we go all in for innovation to the exclusion of standardization, we create big problems; we need both at the same time. Our challenge is to explore how we could draw on the strengths of each of the interdependent poles while simultaneously avoiding the problems that each brings when it is over-emphasized.
This brings us back to global, national, local, and individual COVID-19 questions. We can see that going back to business as usual, in order to get us rapidly back into the black, could crash our business if we become a virus hot spot. And yet, if we all stay home until there is no risk, we may very well have no work and income with which to support our families.
“It is how our brain attempts to simplify decisions, and the desire to communicate them to others fast so that others can understand. Nothing’s wrong with simplification; however, “either-or thinking” is not helpful and actually harmful.” (Dr. Barbara Fasolo)
We cannot succeed if we continue to treat this question of business as usual or stay at home as an either-or question. When we identify this as a polarity, we are challenged to find ways of getting work moving and staying safe. As a result, we’re all considering how to adapt, revising workflows and patterns to keep generating our product or service and, at the same time, screening to make sure our workforce is healthy, maintaining safe distances, and facilitating remote work wherever we can. We are looking for ways to achieve the vital goals of both poles, simultaneously.
“This is polarity management, identifying two seemingly incompatible, yet critically important, answer sets to a problem we face, and discovering how to balance them for positive results.” (Barry Johnson)
While there is a beautifully developed art to this dance at its highest, often the simple, elegant recognition that what you face is a dilemma to solve is the essential, and sufficient, leadership act.
Now the question arises: what dilemmas are you and your organization facing today, in these uncharted waters, that beg your ability to manage to the “and,” rather than “either-or”? Leaders who model and ensure that employees are skilled in identifying the difference between either-or problems to solve and both-and dilemmas to manage will create a safe virtual and on-site work space that allows us to share our gifts and to strengthen our economy. It is important that we have the capacity to move beyond right and wrong, either-or, into more effective ways of analysis and decision-making. Working your organization’s polarities could very well be the key to rising above and dealing with the turbulence of this pandemic flood of business conundrums.
Written by Dr. Anita Sanchez, Ph.D. Have you read?
Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems by Barry Johnson
Barbara Fasolo, Ph.D, Associate Professor, London School of Economics and Political Science, Behavioral Science.
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