In a world where we have become conditioned to see many issues in terms of black and white, ‘either-or’ options, adopting a shades of grey ‘both and’ mindset may seem daunting and contradictory. Let me reassure you that fear is both real and false. Establishing new habits is always daunting at first and rarely as contrary as imagined.
We adopt new practices to gain the benefits associated with them and simultaneously seek to avoid or minimize the negative repercussions of the old habit we are trying to replace.
What we forget is that the old habit became a habit precisely because it generated positive benefits for us when we first adopted it. That is the essence and power of a polarity.
If you have been following this series of posts on polarity thinking, you know the basic steps involved in identifying a polarity, mapping out its inherent up and down sides, putting those outcomes into context and creating an action plan to minimize the downsides. As with all habits, it will take some repetition and practice to become comfortable working through these steps in more spontaneous and proactive ways. Here are some tips to help you use polarity thinking in real life situations.
Start with Yourself
When you believe you have a polarity to manage (not a problem to solve):
- Think and talk using ‘both and’ language. Examples:
- I am striving to speak with diplomacy and candor.
- How might we work to support individual and team success?
- I am committed to balancing work and personal/family commitments.
- Clarify your overall goal or vision for success (Greater Purpose Statement) to provide context and shift your thinking. Acknowledge the fears associated with a failure to achieve your vision.
- Identify your personal (or organizational) preference – the pole where you are generally most comfortable and secure (everyone has a bias, however slight). Think about the downsides of operating too much from this perspective and remind yourself about the upsides of the other pole.
- Make a quick polarity map outlining a few key words/phrases in each quadrant and then determine where your attention and energy is currently focused (map and assess). Share your map with others and ask them how they see the situation.
- Concentrate on how you can obtain the benefits associated with both options (action steps) and identify a couple of early warning signs to alert you to any imbalance in your behaviours so you can course correct quickly.
Look for those ‘teachable moments’:
- The times when people are in conflict and both sides have a valid point of view.
- Situations where people have identified a ‘problem’ and an obvious ‘solution’ yet are encountering resistance to the proposed solution.
- Listen for the values and fears being expressed by those involved and note which quadrants those fears and values fall into.
- Take notes and summarize what you have heard using a polarity grid on a flip chart for all to see.
- Help people identify (or reconnect with) a shared higher purpose (GPS) and acknowledge the deeper fear associated with failing to achieve that vision.
- Seek out and recognize the wisdom found in the perspectives of those resisting change. Resistors appreciate the benefits associated with the ‘status quo’ and fear the downsides associated with the proposed ‘solution’. They can help you develop a fuller picture of the polarity tensions you need to manage.
- Ask people to focus on how they can keep the best of what they have, avoid what they don’t want and build new ways of doing things.
In his book, The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, Roger Martin noted that individual perspectives and organizational paradigms do not accurately represent reality. They are constructions that we create in an effort to make sense of our world. Furthermore, these existing models and frameworks are not perfect. Better versions exist; they simply have not yet been invented.
Adopting a ‘both and’ mindset, can inspire individuals and organizations to develop these more effective operational models and find solutions to seemingly intractable, complex issues.
Dr. Stephen Covey described this process as a ‘win-win’ thinking. Win-win (both and) thinking helps us to consider issues from a wider perspective and then work to find solutions that leverage the desires and strengths of both sides.
A word of caution: Practicing both and thinking requires time and patience. Choose your practice opportunities wisely. Look for issues that are important not necessarily urgent or time-sensitive. You want people to focus on the process not on the clock. As the oft used saying goes, “We must learn to walk before we can run”.
I hope you have enjoyed this series on polarity (both and) thinking. Please share any questions you may have about the process as well as your success stories in the comments section that follows each post. We have much to learn from one another and are stronger together when we share that wisdom.
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.