Like many others, I have been reflecting on the life and global contribution of Nelson Mandela. What struck me most was how over the course of his life he embraced paradox. He experienced the suffering of 21 years of imprisonment, yet learned to forgive. He started as a freedom fighter, “the spear of the nation” for his people, yet followed a path of peace and reconciliation.
As leaders, many of us find ourselves ‘on the horns of a dilemma’, facing long term intractable issues. How do we resolve:
- the vision of the organizational change we wish to see, and the long term strengths and culture that created the organization in the first place?
- the contribution of individual excellence and the strengths of team cohesiveness?
- the need for product and service innovation and the value of reliable production and programs?
One way is NOT to look at these as a technical problem to be solved, but as an ongoing issue or polarity to be managed.
Here is a simple diagram of how polarities can be mapped out. This allows you to articulate the two complementary poles, the upside and downside of each, and the longer term purpose which both poles serve.
Individual vs. team
One example is the relative focus of individual work and team work in organizations. Many organizations would like to move toward a culture of high performance teams, because they desire the upside benefits; common direction, synergies of work, mutual support, cohesive coordination and appreciation of the work of others. Other organizations have experienced the downside of excessive or inappropriate teaming; uniformity and sameness, performing at the lowest common denominator, too many meetings, suppression of individual excellence.
And so they move toward a more individual, entrepreneurial culture, because they desire those upside benefits; creativity and personal initiative, risk taking, personal freedom, productive use of time, fewer meetings. Yet an excessive focus on the individual has its downsides too; personal isolation, organizational silos, rewards to the few, lack of communication or hoarding of information.
Problem or Polarity?
Organizations have both problems to be solved and ongoing polarities to be managed. How do you know which situation you are in? The both-and thinking of polarity management can be used when:
- the difficulty is ongoing
- the two poles are interdependent (e.g. individual-team, change-stability, task focus-people focus)
If you suspect you have an ongoing polarity to be managed, what are some of the ways you can approach it?
- don’t waste your time by attempting to solve problems which are unsolvable
- accept that both sides have something to offer – and they aren’t going away!
- make sure you map out the two poles of the polarity in neutral terms that anyone could accept
- recognize your own biases; all have us a preference for one of the upsides and a fear of one of the downsides
- increase your understanding of the total situation by learning from others who prefer the alternate polarity
- anticipate resistance and manage change by mapping out both downsides and preparing contingencies
- learn to deliberately switch your attention between the perspectives of the two polarities, recognizing that you cannot see both sides at once
- motivate yourself and others to invest in managing the polarity by considering what higher purpose is served by doing so?
Nelson Mandela combined both freedom fighting and peaceful reconciliation to serve all South Africans. People balance work and home to have a fully satisfying and productive life. Plants go dormant in the depths of a northern winter, to bloom again in the spring. And leaders manage ongoing polarities for the sake of personal resilience AND long term organizational health and sustainability.