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A New Approach for Solving Problems

career & business leadership & impact mind & meaning Oct 01, 2022

When thinking about your personal preferences and habits at work, do you tend to favor structure, or flexibility? Centralization or decentralization? When leading others, do you strive to challenge your team, or support them?

While these examples may seem to be contradictions, they are some of the most common instances of polarities in organizations. As an executive coach, leadership consultant, and author of the book Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation, Kelly Lewis – our guest in Episode 105 of The MINDSet Game® podcast – has been using polarities as a lens in her coaching and client work for several decades, and is particularly curious about the roles that identity and vulnerability play in helping people effectively navigate paradoxical tensions. In this episode, Kelly discusses these fascinating concepts and how they play out among individuals, teams, and organizations.


What is a polarity?

Kelly defines polarities as situations where there are two interdependent states that may seem like contradictions, but in reality, they need each other over time in order to be successful. One state makes the other true, and the overuse of one creates a need for the benefits of the other.

For example, consider the structure/flexibility polarity. Each “pole” has benefits: structure brings efficiency, clarity, and control of processes, while flexibility allows for more autonomy, adaptability, and innovation. If an organization focuses too much on implementing structure, they will likely encounter the downsides of overuse, such as rigidity and boredom – which will thereby create a need for the benefits of flexibility. However, if they then begin to overuse flexibility, they may end up with chaos and inefficiency that will create a need for the benefits of structure.


The power of both/and thinking

Kelly notes that one of the challenges that many leaders and organizations encounter when navigating polarities is a reliance on a binary, “either/or” mindset, rather than “both/and” thinking. However, she also says that this is a polarity in itself – the goal should not be to eliminate either/or thinking, but rather to supplement it with both/and. This can help leaders ensure that they are not mistaking polarities as problems that need to be solved, but rather paradoxes to be navigated, which will improve morale, communication, relationships, and results within the team or organization.


How can we become more conscious of polarities?

Kelly and her colleagues have developed various sensemaking tools to help individuals and teams navigate polarities while minimizing conflict. One of these is the Key Polarity Indicator™ (KPI), which can help users increase their awareness of six different polarities commonly found in organizations.

In addition to the KPI and other tools described in Kelly’s book, she recommends two techniques that can be helpful in determining when a polarity may be at play:

1. Notice the language you are using – if the word “versus” is involved, as in “centralization versus decentralization,” there’s a good chance that you are navigating a polarity.

2. Notice if you are involved in a conversation and find yourself demonizing or “othering” the other party – it could indicate a polarity. Often in these situations, where someone has a different preference within a polarity, we tend to focus on the overuses of their preferred pole rather than the potential benefits, while pulling closer to our own preferred pole. This causes conflict, which may be lessened by understanding how polarities work and incorporating “both/and” thinking into our mindsets.


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