Polarity Series #2: Map Reading Basics

Maps. A tool that has likely been around since the beginning of time. Google the definition of map and the first entry to pop up states, “a diagrammatic representation of an area of land or sea showing physical features, cities, roads, etc.” When you study maps in more detail, you notice there are directional arrows (north, south, east, west), a scale identifying distance ratios (1 inch=10 kilometers or miles) and often a legend that highlights places of interest (notable cities, rest stops, camp grounds, parks, etc.).

Polarity thinking also benefits from the use of a map.

Like all maps, a Polarity MapTM helps people to see the bigger picture, identify where they currently are and visualize where they want to get to.

And, when used properly, the Polarity MapTM can help people navigate the inevitable bumps in the road on the journey to a more rewarding future. The big difference between a regular map and a Polarity MapTM is that no one else can create a polarity map for your specific destination – you and your fellow travelers must create this map together.

While that may sound daunting, it is a critical part of the process and time well spent. Engaging those who are impacted by the identified polarity ensures everyone learns to see both the old woman and the young woman (refer back to the Problem or Polarity post) and appreciate different viewpoints. So, let’s take a look at the elements that comprise a basic Polarity MapTM.

Directional Arrows

Just as the compass symbol helps you get your bearings when reading a road map, Polarity MapsTM have their own cardinal reference points to help you interpret the information contained within the map. The four reference points are:

  1. The Greater Purpose Statement (GPS),
  2. The Deepest Fear (DF),
  3. The Left Pole, and
  4. The Right Pole.

Like all navigation systems, the Polarity GPS articulates your desired destination, your primary objective; that is, what you hope to achieve as a result of managing the polarity effectively. It is located at the top of the map to put your decisions in context. Directly opposite at the bottom of the map is the Deepest Fear. This describes the undesired result or setback that will occur if you fail to achieve your primary objective. If I am striving to become an inspirational and effective leader (my GPS) then my DF would be to become an uninspiring and ineffective leader. Organizations or departments within an organization may have responsive customer service as their GPS (with unresponsive customer service as their deepest fear).

The other two directional points on a polarity map are the left and right poles. Think of these poles as the potential routes you can take to reach your GPS. Examples of polarities that could be associated with effective leadership include: flexible and structured; task focus and relationship focused; visionary and operational, candor and diplomacy. Organizational polarities would include: centralized and decentralized, stability and change, departmental interest and organizational interests.

Notice that these behavioural pairs have neutral labels to minimize our emotional reaction to them. One is not necessarily better than the other. Each option has both positive and undesirable implications and often our circumstances will nudge us to emphasize one over the other.

Actually, we all have a bias toward one of the poles of a polarity as do organizational cultures. This bias represents our preferred way of thinking and operating. It’s not that we can’t or won’t demonstrate the values and behaviours associated with the other pole, merely that when given a choice we prefer to approach situations from our favoured pole. Thus my leadership style typically favours strategic, diplomatic, flexible and task-focused behaviours until I’m confronted with circumstances that require me to become more operational, candid, structured and relationship-focused. And the organization I work for may place a higher value on stability, short-term planning and a centralized decision-making over change, long-term planning and decentralized decision-making.

Primary Quadrants

Polarity MapTM also have four quadrants – two for each pole. Picture a sheet of paper divided into four equal boxes. The top quadrants are where stakeholders identify the core values and positive outcomes associated with each pole. The lower quadrants will contain the negative outcomes and fears that result from focusing too much on one pole to the neglect of the other one.

If I am mapping out the leadership dynamics of being flexible and structured, one upside to a flexible style is that innovation and creativity are stimulated. An upside to being structured is that there are clear processes for accomplishing identified tasks which minimizes confusion. Being too flexible might lead to inconsistent service levels or confusion about how to proceed (a down side). Similarly, too much structure could hamper creativity and negatively impact morale.

A well-managed polarity focuses on sustaining the positive outcomes of both poles simultaneously and minimizing time spent dealing with the undesirable outcomes of the two poles.

I’ll explore this more fully in a future post on leveraging polarities using early warning signs and action steps.

Apply the Learning

Okay, it’s time for you to play around with the concepts covered in this post.

  1. Review the following pairs of leadership polarities and identify which behaviour best describes you. Don’t over think this, read each pair and quickly pick the one that reflects your typical response to situations. So…are you generally more:
  • Analytical or instinctual?
  • Operational or strategic?
  • Directive or participatory?
  • Creative or logical?
  • Task-oriented or relationship-focused?
  • Independent work or team-work?
  1. Now pick one of those pairs and identify at least three positive outcomes and values associated with each behaviour. Identify three negative outcomes or fears that occur when you over-focus on each of those behaviours.

Congratulations, you’ve just outlined the content for a very basic Polarity MapTM. You should now be able to see more clearly the pitfalls of your preferred polarity behaviour alongside its strengths. You can also appreciate the advantages of the polarity behaviour you typically resist because you are fearful of its downsides.

Your next challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to observe how this behavioural polarity plays out in your life over the coming week. Which quadrant(s) are you spending the most time in? Are you getting the results you want? Try to operate from your less preferred behaviour pole and see what happens. I’ll explore this theme of assessing polarities more in the next post.

Based on your current understanding of polarities and the polarity map components, how might this tool/approach help you become a more effective leader? Share your perspective in the comments section below.

Note: The content for this post and the others in the Polarity Thinking Series was drawn from Barry Johnson’s book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems by Johnson Ph.D., Barry (2014) Paperback and workshop materials developed by Polarity Partnerships.

I completed the Foundations in Polarity Thinking training program in 2011 and deliver a one-day introductory workshop on Polarity Thinking to organizations seeking to deal with complex problems and dilemmas in a more strategic and effective way.

For additional information and a short video series on Polarity Management, visit Polarity Partnerships.

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