Polarity Management


Polarity management theory is a model for managing two forces that are opposite, yet interdependent.  When faced with two antipodal options, we often focus on the opposition, and may fail entirely to notice that the forces depend on each other.

Think, for example, of breathing. Breathing is a complex biological process, but it can be simplified to two basic acts: inhalation and exhalation. These forces seem to be working against each other. But omitting one or the other would be, to put it lightly, inadvisable. They need each other to perform their own function. And they need separation, too. Try inhaling and exhaling at the same time. Can’t do it, right? You knew before the attempt that it was a ridiculous request, because you knew intuitively that inhaling and exhaling are opposite, but equally important, parts of the whole. It’s not inhalation or exhalation, it’s inhalation and exhalation.

But other interdependent systems are not as obvious to us. Think of how often we frame decisions in terms of multiple-choice questions with only one right answer. It’s either A or B–it can’t be both! Many of us were conditioned, from a young age, to solve problems. We were rewarded for finding the right answer and took comfort in the solid dichotomy of right and wrong. In other words, we were trained to think of choices as problems to be solved, rather than as polarities to be managed.

The thing is, real-life problems are not multiple-choice. Our need to simplify, to reach a concrete solution, holds us back. If we could learn to complicate our sense of right and wrong, to be comfortable sitting between two opposites, we would actually save time, talent and resources. Polarity management holds the key.

To quote Barry Johnson, PhD,  who originally devised this system, “The Polarity Management™ model and set of principles will help you distinguish between Solvable Problems and Polarities and help you effectively manage those polarities most important to your organization’s success.” Managing polarities will help you apply your resources more effectively and reduce stress, burnout and frustrations in your work and life.

A fundamental question to ask when encountering a difficulty is: “Is this a problem we can ‘solve,’ or is it an ongoing polarity we must manage well?” If it is a polarity you must manage, applying traditional problem-solving skills will confuse the problem rather than help you find solutions. An example might help illustrate the process.

Let’s think about two seemingly opposite leadership qualities: rigor and flexibility. A rigorous leader sets clear expectations and backs them up with discipline. They expect things to go according to plan. A flexible leader, on the other hand, is looser, more adaptable, and more agile. When things go awry, they don’t panic, but find a way to get back on track.

Immediately, we can see the leadership benefits of both rigor and flexibility. Notice how I said and, not or. That’s an important paradigm shift. Leaders must recognize their own complexity, and work to integrate the contradictory but equally essential tools and styles that exist within them.

A simple way to manage a polarity is to make two lists, one for each “opposite.” Map the benefits of each style or tactic. To use the above example, draw a vertical line down the middle of a piece of paper. On the left, list the advantages of using a rigorous leadership style; on the right, do the same for flexibility. Once the lists are complete, begin thinking about the diverse situations you encounter as a leader, and how the benefits of both styles can be put to use. An effective leader cannot be described in one or two words, because their leadership exists on a shifting spectrum of polarities. To paraphrase Whitman, they contain multitudes, and they know how to use them.

But even those who are skilled in polarity management must be on guard. It is possible to lean too hard on one pole or the other. In order to avoid this, it is important to recognize the disadvantages of each pole. These drawbacks then serve as warning signs which indicate that you have drifted too far in one direction or the other. To stay with our example from before:

What does it look like when a leader is too rigorous? Get a fresh piece of paper, and start another list. You might write things like “stress and burnout among their colleages,” or “decrease in organizational morale.” These are the warning signs that you have forgotten flexibility and are exercising too much rigor.

What does it look like when a leader is too flexible? Yes, write these down too—things like “not meeting deadlines” or “lack of focus on organizational vision.” This is your list of warning signs that you have forgotten rigor and are being too flexible.

Here’s the beauty of this work: the antidote to overreliance on one of the poles is to revisit the positive attributes of the opposite pole. If you notice a decrease in morale and suspect you are being too hard on your employees, you can go back to your list of the benefits of flexibility, and remind yourself to temper discipline with agility and understanding. Conversely, if you feel you are being too flexible, you can consult your list of the benefits of rigor and find the inspiration you need to get things back on track. As you get better and better at this practice, you may eventually find yourself shifting between poles in the moment—no list necessary!

So, where do you start?

  1. Identify some polar relationships that come up frequently in your leadership. Rigor/flexibility is just one example of a polarity. Others might include confidence/humility, seriousness/fun, and short-term/long-term.
  2. Use essential questioning. The most important question you can ask yourself when facing a challenge is this: “Is this a problem to be solved or a polarity to be managed?” Can you be better served by changing or to and?
  3. Map out your poles. Identify the benefits and the drawbacks or warning signs of both sides of the pole.
  4. Practice, both in reflection and in real-time. How can you increase the use of the benefits of each pole while reducing the drawbacks? Start by focusing on one polarity, and journal about the challenges and successes you face when managing it.

If you are interested in developing your polarity management skills, send me an email at bill@getemergent.com.

Posted in

1 Comment

  1. Brian Hammond on September 5, 2023 at 3:04 pm

    I like the separation in identifying both styles and making the list, I think it as it was described can work both ways being good and bad by extreme direction one way. It’s good to practice both methods to be more flexible when things are great. And be rigorous when things aren’t going as planned and keep people engaged and accountable.

Leave a Comment