Traditional Problem Solving especially problems we solved as part of our education system have a single right answer- so at work, there is a tendency to have an Either/OR orientation and the search for the quintessential one right answer -that has been a great resource for us both at Work and in Life. This traditional Problem solving needs to get augmented with new thinking as the Business world gets more Volatile, Complex, Uncertain and Ambiguous and with  personal choices also getting complicated in fast changing times.  These new complexities require for Leaders to make a critical shift in their Thinking to navigate these new complexities.

Managing turbulent business times requires navigating conflicting goals, contradictory messages and competing perspectives that can create barriers to great Performance. These opposing forces are called Polarities. A Polarity is a paradox- a situation in which opposing forces within a system pulls at each other to keep things balanced. Polarities are everywhere – in the Business world for instance -Centralization and Decentralization, Growth v/s Profit maximization or Short term v/s Long term orientation. In personal life similarly Work v/s Life balance, liberated v/s Conservative mind sets are great examples. There is a natural tension between the two and most of us are uncomfortable with this tension.

If we begin to see how all pervasive these Polarities are – deeply embedded in the landscape of our lives, we will see how they can bring on stress and poor outcomes if we continue solving them as traditional problems instead of altering our mindsets to accept the Polarities. Thought leaders (Wendy Smith, Marianne Lewis, and Michael Tushman – HBR,2016) have proposed a new way of Thinking and Leading by introducing what is called the Both/And Leadership – it’s a new way of seeing and managing dynamic tension in a complex world and supplements the Either/or thinking.

Dance along the Pole

Strike when the iron is hot, Or Patience is a virtue – Many of such commonly used sayings contradict each other – lying at the opposite ends of a Pole. Which end of the pole you listen to depends on deeply held Values, Beliefs, Assumptions, early conditioning, and our temperament.

Haste makes waste, you’re never too old to learn, it’s better to be safe than sorry most of us hang at one end of the pole. We either prefer action or prefer to plan for Action, or are either Result or Process- oriented, like Tradition or love Routine.

There is an upside to each end of the Pole and the problem is there’s also a downside to each end. The solution is to move fluidly and intentionally on the Pole. The place to stand is to see the large picture at both ends and value both perspectives. The new world belongs to those who complete their thinking by deliberately attempting to understand the alternate Perspective. You may discover more commonalities than difference which help dance along the Pole.

Here are some examples of Polarities that great Leaders need to manage well. Managing Polarities is invaluable for anyone wanting to lead in their own lives. Success is when you achieve BOTH – avoiding the stress of one Pole losing at the cost of the other. Here is the magic of the word “AND”-

  • Showing confidence in People AND holding people accountable for Results.
  • Being open-minded to variation AND requiring certain standards of Performance to be maintained.
  • Fighting for your Team AND keeping the larger company’s interest in mind.
  • Being direct and candid while expressing opinions AND being diplomatic and careful about hurting others.
  • Being self assured/confident AND being humble – avoiding the pitfalls of arrogance.

Those great at managing Polarities can dance along the Pole and succeed if they have the courage to Act!