Leaders who know when to use ‘either/or’ or ‘both/and’ thinking are better performers than those who don’t – it’s a game changer in the VUCA world

One of life’s certainties is that the world is going to remain volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (“VUCA”).  By the way, it always was but somehow it felt less so. And as if VUCA wasn’t enough we now have BANI, TUNA and RUPT. Whichever acronym floats your boat, the world is highly interconnected, is changing rapidly in unpredictable ways and what worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow. 

As a result, being a leader is ever more challenging. Command and control, black-and-white thinking, win/lose, and linear problem-solving get you so far. To navigate the VUCA winds successfully you need new approaches and thinking

One of these approaches is the management of paradoxes or polarities where you aim to get the best out of seemingly opposite poles. 

At the core of organisational life, multiple paradoxical tensions are at play that owners, managers and employees must navigate. Tensions exist between profit and purpose, short-term profitability and long-term sustainability, stability and change, and exploration and exploitation, among many others.

Eastern philosophical and religious teachings such as Taoism (Ying and Yang) and Hinduism (Masculine and Feminine) have long espoused that the paradoxical tensions should be embraced and transcended to experience wholeness rather than something to be resolved.

As S. Kierkegaard said, “The thinker without paradox is like a lover without feeling; a paltry mediocrity.” 

I’ve divided this topic into two essays. This essay will cover:

  1. Definition of a polarity 
  2. List of common polarities
  3. Explanation of the difference between a problem and a polarity
  4. The value of polarity or paradox management

In the second essay I will:

  1. Describe how to get win/win using Andiron’s Polarity Navigator Tool

1. What Is A Polarity?

“Interdependent pairs are a ubiquitous reality that has been with us since the beginning of time. We are born into them with our first breath – Inhaling AND Exhaling is an interdependent pair.”

Barry Johnson, Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems

His example of inhaling and exhaling is a metaphor for all polarities. 

Both inhale and exhale poles are necessary, you can’t choose one over the other. 

You will get light-headed and feel the downside of too much CO2 on one side of the pole when choosing to inhale for a long time.  The pressure or force to gain the benefits from the other pole will pull you into exhaling. Likewise, if you hold on too long to the exhale you will run out of breath or oxygen and swing back to the other pole – inhaling. It is a dynamic process, an ongoing flow between the two polarities. 

Each polarity has distinctive benefits and downsides if overused. When you focus on one pole you get its benefits but if you spend too much focus on it (and neglect the other) you will experience downsides. 

The image above includes an infinity loop with arrows which shows the natural flow of energy within and between the interdependent poles. It also shows they are separate and integrated – spot the ‘And’ in between them.

It’s worth pointing out that the goal is not to swing from one pole to the other as the infinity loop might suggest. Navigating polarities involves harnessing the benefits of both whilst not excluding the other and while understanding the downsides of each. Ultimately you are searching for the Third Way which brings together both poles in a new way e.g. breathing is the Third Way for the inhaling and exhaling poles.

2. Examples Of Polarities

Here are some examples of polarities in organisations:

  • Decentralisation::Centralisation
  • Short-term focus::Long-term focus
  • Status-quo::Change
  • Structure::Flexibility
  • Focus on costs::Focus on quality

And some examples of polarities in leadership:

  • Action::Reflection
  • Challenge::Support
  • Candour::Diplomacy
  • Confidence::Humility
  • Direct Others::Empower Others
  • Learning::Knowing
  • Being::Doing

Why two colons (‘::’) and not ‘vs’? The poles in a polarity are not opposites, they are interdependent – they need each other.

3. Is It A Problem Or A Polarity?

As Barry Johnson says, “Every day we waste energy and create pain from misdiagnosing a paradox and treating it as a problem to solve and then fighting over the two poles.”

Seeing a polarity can be hard to do but it is one of the key capabilities you need to develop.

The world is seemingly filled with either/or choices.

  1. Either we buy the new air-conditioning unit or we don’t
  2. Either we remove the level of middle managers or we don’t
  3. Either I will give tough feedback or I will avoid it
  4. Either I will give you lots of autonomy or I will closely monitor your performance day-to-day

Familiar choices perhaps for you. But taking a closer look, the first two alternatives are genuine either/or choices. They are problems to solve:

  • They are independent alternatives – one choice does not depend on the other. There is no need to include an alternative for the solution to work e.g. we have the air-conditioning unit or we don’t
  • They can stand alone
  • They are not ongoing
  • They are solvable 
  • There is an endpoint – you make the decision and move on to the next

Whereas the last two choices are both/and decisions and polarities to leverage:

  • They are interdependent alternatives i.e. the alternatives need each other to optimise the situation over time e.g you can give the feedback in such a way which enhances the relationship
  • They cannot stand alone and they rely on each other
  • They are ongoing
  • There is no endpoint
  • They are not solvable

The skill is to apply the right thinking to the right situation – either/or when it is a problem to be solved and both/and when it is a polarity to leverage. 

And also you don’t need to learn to map every polarity (see below for an explanation) as you will already be navigating some well. For example, some leaders will be leveraging Candor::Diplomacy skillfully i.e. giving colleagues honest feedback which enhances the relationship. 

4. The Value of Paradox Management

“Polarity Thinking [or Paradox Management] is the most elegant approach to dealing with the critical issues that we wrestle with in institutions, organizations, and groups the world over. When we grasp the concepts and their application, we realize that we can truly make a difference in the world by seeing and making sense of both horns of knotty dilemmas. We can have our cake and eat it! 

David Magellan Horth, Center for Creative Leadership and Idea Connection Systems.

In most coaching sessions I have with CEOs, polarities come up in discussion. Why? Because they show up in most aspects of business life including leadership (Control::Letting go), teamwork (Task::Relationship), strategy (Competition::Collaboration), organisational structure (Centralise::Decentralise) and personal (Work::Home).

The bottom line is that organisations, teams, leaders and individuals who manage paradox perform better than those who don’t.

Here are some key benefits I have seen (NB I could have listed many, many more!):

The irony of becoming skilled at managing polarities is that you are inviting complexity and ambiguity into your life. Polarity management is a rejection of certainty, simplicity and clarity which humans so crave. 

1. Address Complex Issues Without Being Overwhelmed

So doesn’t this mean you will become more overwhelmed not less? I would argue no. When leaders wrestle with decisions like growth vs efficiency or control vs autonomy they can get very stressed. As the business grows they face more and more seemingly impossible decisions like this. 

The desire to choose one or the other, to make these trade-offs exacerbates the problem because the solutions will be second-rate, increasing feelings of overwhelm.

As Roger Martin says, “Integrative thinkers [or polarity thinkers] don’t mind a messy problem. In fact they welcome complexity, because that’s where the best answers come from. 

This change of mindset and capacity will ultimately lead to less overwhelm as you understand the futility of trying to find certainty and simplifying the world. The world is complex and polarity thinking will help you thrive in the face of contradictory pressures and competing priorities.

2. Become More Effective

F. Scott Fitzgerald saw “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” as a sign of a truly intelligent person. NB don’t think polarity thinking is reserved for the super smart – in fact the leaders who think they are super smart often get caught up in proving they are right at the expense of finding out all the different options available. 

When you think conventionally and mistakenly think most of your decisions are either/or choices you will be making at best mediocre decisions leading to mediocre results. Why? Because you will not be considering all of the options available to you. You will be making unnecessary trade-offs.  

Switching to both/and thinking allows you to find win/win solutions which get the benefits of each polarity and minimise the downsides. In simple terms, you will start to make better decisions.

3. Accelerate Your Company’s and Team’s Growth 

I’ve seen leaders’ eyes light up (ok maybe widen!) when they realise they can get the best of both worlds. When they stop thinking everything is an either/or choice and more likely be a both/and decision. 

So how does this accelerate your company’s and team’s growth? It is an unlock.  Leaders who are fixated on being right and being seen as the expert can go a long way but there is a ceiling you are putting on yourself, your team and your company. The world is too complex for any one individual to know it all. Leadership and business are team sports. 

By switching your mindset to either/or you are:

  • Ending the cycle of being the constraint or bottleneck on decision-making
  • Freeing yourself and your colleagues to admit there is not always a clear solution
  • Implicitly or explicitly telling your team members you value divergent perspectives
  • Inviting your colleagues to think creatively to find innovative win/win solutions 

More enthusiasm, engagement, and better decisions lead to higher team effectiveness and company performance.

4. Manage Conflict More Skillfully (Internal and External)

This benefit relates to internal and external conflict. 

Internal conflict on matters such as how results-focused you should be vs relationship-focused can cause leaders to lose sleep

“Should I fire my team member who has been with the company since the start and has shown such loyalty and dedication?” It may feel like an either/or decision but maybe by searching for the positives of results- and relationship-focused you may find strategies which leverage the best of both worlds. For example:

  • Have open, empathetic conversations to understand the root causes of the underperformance, tapping into the employee’s institutional knowledge.
  • Recognise and reward the employee’s past contributions and loyalty while also setting expectations for improved performance.

Regarding external conflict, polarity thinking helps recognise that two opposing perspectives are often interdependent and both have value, rather than seeing it as a conflict where one side must ‘win’. By facilitating discussions that surface the benefits of both opposing perspectives can foster mutual understanding and collaboration. This helps avert the ‘us vs them’ mentality which can cause unproductive debates, blame, tension and inefficiencies.

5. Deepen Relationships

“When the opposites are realised to be one, discord melts into concord, battles become dances, and old enemies become lovers. We are all then in a position to make friends with all of our universe, not just one half of it.”

Ken Wilber

When groups don’t know they are discussing a polarity, tension can rise as team members get attached to their point of view. Their perspective can become part of their identity or ego – “I am a detail person” or “I am a process person”

And when your team member takes an opposite view e.g. the big-picture perspective vs your detailed viewpoint, this feels like a threat to your ego which triggers defensiveness, a desire to win and closed-mindedness. You might start to see your colleague as being on the other side, as the enemy, and ripple effects might develop way beyond the polarity being discussed. 

“They are so stuck in the weeds they can’t see the big picture” 

“They are so up in the clouds they are missing the important details.”

But when a group understands polarities, that there is no right or wrong solution, egos are kept in check, and the conversation goes beyond my view vs your view. The tension is harnessed as the benefits of both sides are appreciated leading to deeper communication, higher trust and respect and better relationships.

Using Polarity Thinking To Take Your Leadership To The Next Level

I’m in a hurry to learn so that I can help others more impactfully. The more I learn the more I think why the heck didn’t I know about this when I was younger? Mastering paradoxes is one of those life skills that schools should be teaching to children let alone people like me coaching it to adult leaders. 

Polarity thinking is transformative. From a personal perspective, it’s been a huge relief, weight off my shoulders even. Why? Because I like all of us, am a bunch of contradictions – big-picture and detailed, people- and results-focused, patient and impatient (ok mainly impatient). And now with my polarity thinking capabilities, I am embracing my and others’ contradictions. I am seeing the world more fully. I am searching for the best of both worlds, to find the win-win, and at the same time not getting fixated on finding the right solution when no right solution exists.

I will leave you with one simple recommendation.

The recommendation is what more ‘mature’ and more effective leaders routinely ask themselves when faced with an issue, “Might this be a polarity here?”  Integrate this question into your life, it will be transformative for multiple reasons.