Tool Name: Polarity Mapper

Theme(s):Decision-making; performance management; paradox

What is this tool?

Some leadership issues can be effectively addressed with either/or thinking. However,others require a both/and mindset. The latter constitute polarities  i.e. paradoxes which appear to be mutually exclusive but which actually require balance to achieve optimum results. They can also be described as interdependent pairs which connect in a complimentary way.

The polarity mapping tool enables you to systematically document the benefits and early warning signs of the two sides of the polarity in order to effectively leverage the benefits without falling prey to the downside of either option.

It is also important to understand what this tool isn’t. Polarity mapping is not a problem-solving tool. Unlike polarities, problems are solvable and have a definite end point.

Why/when would this tool be helpful for me to use as a leader?

A classic example of a polarity is inhaling and exhaling. 1 Our survival is dependent on our ability to effectively balance the use of both activities. A significant benefit associated with inhaling is the intake of life-sustaining oxygen. However, if we inhale too much, we accumulate harmful levels of carbon dioxide. Exhaling serves to eliminate carbon dioxide from our bodies. However, if we focus exclusively on exhaling, we will not take in enough oxygen to survive. Based on these facts, the optimal solution is to inhale enough to get the benefits of oxygen and exhale enough to remove the toxic carbon dioxide from our bodies.

Polarities exist at the organizational, role and personal levels. Whenever individuals position their thinking at either end of a polarity, they are likely to strongly defend the correctness of their opinions. This is akin to being a proponent of inhaling as an alternative to exhaling. Clearly that represents an untenable situation. Polarity mapping can help to break the impasse by highlighting the fact that it’s not one option or the other, but rather both being utilized in away that leverages the upside while minimizing the downside. It is also important to know that the management of polarities is a dynamic process as opposed to a static once and done event.

[1] Ref: Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems by Barry Johnson

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