Relax. It’s Not A Problem.

A lot goes unresolved in every workplace: you race to produce short-term deliverables while long-term goals loom unaddressed; individuals hammer away at their tasks, while team progress stagnates; you struggle with the balance between building workplace relationships and just getting the work done.

The bad news is that there are no solutions to these problems.

The good news is that these aren’t problems. These are polarities.

Unlike a problem, a polarity is ongoing, unsolvable, and contains a pair of poles—like our first example above, short term and long term.  It’s easy to say these alternatives are in opposition to each other, but in truth, they’re complimentary and interdependent. The trick isn’t solving a polarity (that’s problem-speak sneaking back in); the trick is recognizing the polarity for what it is and managing it effectively.

Think about breathing. Like a polarity, breathing is continuous and consists of two complimentary functions—inhaling and exhaling. Sometimes you’ll need to breath harder or slower, sometimes in, sometimes out; you might even need to hold it once in a while.

Some polarities are managed, like breathing, somewhat unconsciously (experience has taught you much of what needs to happen and when). But just because it can happen without your conscious efforts, doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to do it better. And you’ll need all your respiratory acumen when you find yourself in the inevitable workplace marathon.

Here are a few common examples of leadership polarities:

  • Grounded & Visionary
  • Control & Empowerment
  • Structure & Flexibility
  • Planning & Implementation
  • Candor & Diplomacy
  • Responsibility & Freedom

Again, you might feel the urge to replace the ampersand with a “versus.” But don’t. You need each of these poles; the idea here isn’t for each pair to fight it out until a winner emerges. You can’t go through life only inhaling.

But that’s not to say that your poles must always be in balance. There will be times when a given pole must take precedent over its counterpart. Take Responsibility & Freedom: Overwhelmed by your tendency to micromanage? Give your reports more freedom. New employees coming aboard at a critical time? Tighten up the reigns and take a little more responsibility.

Central to effective leadership is the ability to manage polarities, and the first step to managing a polarity is identifying it. Here are a few questions to ask when trying to determine if you’re facing a problem or a polarity:

  • Is it ongoing?
  • Are there two alternatives?
  • Can you only focus on one alternative for so long before needing to focus on the other?
  • Are there upsides to each alternative?
  • Does your success depend on both upsides?
  • Will ignoring one alternative or upside eventually undermine your higher purpose?

If you answer yes to all of these questions, you’ve identified a polarity. If you answer no to any of the above, you’ve probably just got a good old-fashioned problem on your hands. If the latter, don’t worry, it’s solvable; it the former, just keep telling yourself, this is not a problem. And remember to breath.


About Jean Leslie

Jean Brittian Leslie is a Senior Fellow and Director, Applied Research Services at the Center for Creative Leadership. Jean recently received the Alfred J. Marrow award to develop a polarity assessment for virtual teams. She holds a M.A. degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
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4 Responses to Relax. It’s Not A Problem.

  1. avatar Nick Petrie says:

    Great article guys. Nice summary of a big, important topic in our field!

  2. I love the concept of “&” Effective leaders have the ability to live in the space of polarity and not duality. The gammarian in me wants to point out that I believe the word you are looking for is complementary not complimentary.. :)

    Like a polarity, breathing is continuous and consists of two complimentary functions

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