Understanding Polarities in the Workplace

Effective leaders know how to manage polarities in the workplace

An area of study that helps leaders improve is to understand their organization’s polarities. Polarities in organizations can be a major mystery for leaders. Polarities underlie your most troubling organizational miseries because they are opposing forces that are continually interactive in groups.

  • Polarities are simply problems that cannot be solved and can only be managed.
  • They cause disturbance again and again and can be very frustrating – unless we understand the nature of them.
  • The problem with polarities is their nature of opposition.

Let’s take an example of multiple age groups in management today. All three or four generations may be represented in management in one organization at the same time today. As companies grow, new and seasoned managers – GenYs and GenXers – are trained managers entering the organization with a lot of previous experience in their background already. They are familiar with using specific tools. Tools that baby boomers have been happy enough with over time are just not considered adequate. A polarized struggle over what to keep and what to change will eventually foster a creative solution, if there is proper leadership to help avoid getting stuck in polarized relationships. These relationships need to be well led and advised.

Most importantly, fresh and incoming managers must be able to bring their expertise and really use it. They need to keep a mindset for positive change, process improvement and value increase. In order to do so, they must enter the organizational ’emotional field’. We may not want to tell new emerging managers when they are up against a historical polarity existing in the organization. But, inevitably they will bump up against them.

It is important as new people with previous work experience in management enter your culture, that you are able to clearly help them avoid getting trapped and stuck in an organizational polarity.

Helping individuals and teams address polarities can increase your productivity by a lot. #productivityhacks

One of the most interesting authors and practitioners in organizational thinking was a psychologist known as Edwin Friedman, who created a model of systems thinking that has been used in both organizational systems as well as family systems. Families and organizations are under similar very strong influences and forces at play that follow certain laws of organizational systems.

Freidman describes three sets of polarities that pull people in opposite directions. When leaders act to enforce change, they go up against emotional interactions between people related three known psychological polarities.

Understanding these three polarities is important for leaders to understand how to manage. If you are managing people today, what you are mostly doing is managing your relationship with them. Nevertheless, the three polarity forces are there.

Polarity # 1 Individuality – togetherness.

This polarity is about belonging. The individuality-togetherness polarity describes the pull to differentiate and be distinct in a group, as opposed to the strong and instinctual draw to pull together and give up ideas to be more a part of the group cohesion. The pull towards togetherness helps members of the group remain safe and feel they belong. There are wide ranges of differences among people in their need or desire for belongingness. When an organization is under anxiety people tend to huddle together and get even closer in order to reduce their anxiety. This is a human instinct, but what is the issue with it? Individual leaders have a central dilemma on how are they going to maintain their individuality, while at the same time get close to the organization. Huddling together can make it difficult for an individual leader to be strong and distinctive stance, a characteristic necessary to provoke change.

Polarity # 2 Pursuing-distancing.

This polarity is about connection. This polarity is about establishing the right amount of proximity that each person wants to maintain in their sense of closeness or distance to other people. Some people pursue to get closer and other people withdraw to have more distance. There are many different ranges of what people like and don’t like when it comes to emotional ‘proximity’…especially when they’re in a work environment. Every single person has the part of them that wants to be close and the part of them that must take distance. Different people vary. If you want to understand how close or how distant you or others need to be in order for them to work well, then you have come a long way to understanding how to manage your relationship with individuals.

In healthy relationships the back and forth flow of distance and closeness is going to be flexible and constantly changing. An unhealthy relationship pattern occurs when parties get stuck in being rigid and inflexible. One is pursuing, one is distancing. If we have relationships that are out of balance, anxieties increase. A pursuer may need to pause and stop and understand that the person who is trying to move away from you (consciously or unconsciously) is not really able to hear what you have to say. Somehow, moving away from and clear hearing do not go together. If someone is trying to create distance from you, they cannot listen to what you are saying even if they hear you.

Polarity # 3 Over functioning and under functioning.

This polarity is about power, achievement and getting things done. When a person over functions they shoulder responsibility for the problems of others. They can get stuck in taking responsibility so much that it causes a syndrome of under functioning on the part of others around them on their team.
Over functioning is a serious source of stress for leaders because when they are over functioning, somebody else is under functioning.

Strong leaders who are high control leaders display over functioning behavior. An unintentional trigger caused by the leader’s over functioning has a polarized outcome of putting others in a state of ‘learned helplessness’. The stronger the leader the more helpless the underfunctioners may become. There is a paradox that as the leader tries to be responsible for ‘making’ others do more, he/she is actually could be making it worse. Friedman says the only way for the leader to get out of this trap is to just become less responsible. For some leaders, it is hard to even think about doing that. Other people need a fuller sense of responsibility in order for them to work at their best. Under functioning folks do not take the risk necessary to be fully responsible, so they learn to opt out of decision making roles, even if they are frustrated and complain about it. If the leader continues to over function, they have to under function. It’s the power of that polarity.

Organizational members interlocking and swirl around different forms of emotional processes in a magnetic field.
One of the main abilities of a good leader is to be able to remain steadfast in meeting those opposing forces and do something creative with it. Mold it into something great.

A leader needs to be self-differentiated in present moment awareness to avoid getting lulled into or caught up between opposing forces working against each other.
The opposing forces must somehow be addressed as a beautiful tension for creative problem-solving. Otherwise, it can be miserable and lower work inner life satisfaction.

Leader Reflection: Keep opposing forces constantly in interaction. What is critical is that the flow keep moving. Organizations work best when the relationships can flow back and forth and not get stuck, rigid, or frozen in opposing patterns. More #productivityhacks.

What are the polarities you see and experience in your organization?
What advice would you give a new person entering your organization that relates to its polarities?
How do you see good leaders use polarities to provoke creativity and collaboration?

About the Author:

Jane Hundley, Executive Coach, M.A. Industrial Organizational Psychology (I/O) & Development, President of Impact Management, Inc.

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