A few years ago, a coaching client of mine leaned in and said quietly, “Listen, I’d be happy if I could just hide in the corner and focus on my part of the organization. That would feel really good.”
Then he laughed. He knew exactly how impossible that was because he'd just accepted a position on the executive leadership team. He no longer had the luxury of keeping his head down, and he was feeling the heat.
How was he going to navigate competing demands on his time? Could he split his attention between his work and leadership? How might focusing on the overall organization compromise the quality of his team’s work? Would it mean giving up what he enjoyed?
I get it. Focusing on what you can influence and control is satisfying. You’re the expert. You set the strategy, develop your team, execute, and celebrate your success.
What my client knew, but didn't want to admit, is that complex, large-scale, and fast-moving organizations need leaders who can tend to their parts while also working on the vitality of the whole. Without that, leadership teams struggle to navigate tough conversations about prioritization, resource allocation, and cross-functional initiatives when the needs of the whole come in conflict with any one team’s goals.
An unsolvable problem
My client’s new role meant he'd need to continually balance two things that seemed in competition with each other: the whole and his part.
It’s a classic tension that can't be solved and not the only one he'll face in his time on the leadership team.
Increasingly, I find that unresolvable tensions, or polarities, are at the heart of organizational life. If you start to look around you see them everywhere. They’re vexing because they don’t go away and they can’t be solved. Not even by clever consultants.
What are polarities?
A polarity is two values or points of view that are very different, may appear as opposites and competitive, yet need each other over time to be successful. Polarities never go away. We have to manage them together, and accept that they are unsolvable.
Inhale and exhale. These two things are surely opposites. One doesn’t exist without the other, and we need them both to survive.
Continuity and transformation. Indexing too far in one direction or the other leads to stagnation or chaos. Organizations in a constant state of change can't build organizational memory. If an organization never changes, it dies. There’s tension between these two things that can’t be solved or resolved, only managed over time.
Directive and participatory. This one is showing up everywhere lately. As the trend in management shifts from command-and-control to shared leadership, I see leaders struggling to navigate the space between these two extremes. Too directive and you miss valuable perspectives from your team. Excessively participatory and you risk pleasing no one by trying to please everyone and wasting time doing it. There are no easy answers here, only tensions to be managed.
These polarities show up again and again in different contexts, often disguised as new words, but stemming from these common roots:
- Part and whole
- Continuity and transformation
- Autonomy and interdependence
- Individual and team
- Candor and diplomacy
- Challenge and support
- Directive and participative
- Task and relationship
- Spontaneous and disciplined
- Decentralized and centralized
- Competing and collaborating
- Global and local
- Agility and leverage
- Margin and mission
A mindset shift
Managing polarities requires a shift in mindset from traditional ways of managing and leading.
Old mindset: “To achieve desired outcomes, leaders need to eliminate or solve tensions to enable the work of employees.”
New mindset: “Effective leaders empower their employees to harness ongoing tensions towards fulfilling the organization’s purpose and vision.”
So how do leaders manage polarities?
The good news is that when you harness the tension between a polarity, it can lead to the achievement of a higher purpose. Any leader can get good at managing polarities through discipline and practice.
When faced with a polarity, here are four critical questions to consider :
- What actions can support us in leveraging and maintaining the positive aspects of each pole?
- What early warning signs might indicate we are overusing one of the poles?
- What happens when we find the perfect balance?
- What happens when we get completely out of balance?
Why organizational agility is essential to managing polarities
All organizations go through cycles of overusing one polarity at the expense of the other. With the help of agile mindsets, behaviors, and processes, organizations can build their capacity to quickly sense and respond when things start to get out of balance.
Organizations well positioned to navigate polarities have:
- rapid cycles of learning and decision-making
- a way to shift resources and talent across the organization quickly
- an open exchange of information across departments and teams
- leaders who are willing to make hard choices about de-prioritizing products/projects that no longer serve the organization's purpose
Agile organizations have a greater chance of harnessing the productive aspects of the tension, rather than getting consumed by the negative aspects of each pole.
A path forward for my client
I advised my client to spend time answering these questions and considering what might happen when he finds the perfect balance between his team (the part) and his organization (the whole).
He came back to me a few weeks later. Upon reflection, he realized that his work on his team had given him a rich perspective about the needs of his organization’s clients that other senior leaders didn’t have. He had an opportunity to integrate that perspective into organizational decision making, something he came to realize was much needed.
He also realized that by connecting to the whole, he had an opportunity to expand his team’s influence through partnership and collaboration with other groups. He would have missed that opportunity if he'd stayed in his corner.
When he focused on the upsides of both poles, rather than feeling overwhelmed, he was full of possibility.