As we face the growing speed and complexity of today’s corporate landscape it can feel overwhelming for HR leaders to balance many competing and contradictory priorities and demands.
Having effective strategies for navigating through turbulent times and making decisions that propel roles, teams and organisations forward is essential.
One invaluable resource for keeping pace with these challenges is organisation development.
Remaining calm in chaos
The profession has developed many proven theories and tools to decipher complex situations and create inclusive solutions, which can drive your organisation forward even amidst chaos and conflict.
In this article, we have handpicked a powerful and user-friendly tool – polarity management – that you can effortlessly implement right away.
What is polarity management?
Polarity management was created by Dr Barry Johnson as an alternative to the prevailing mindset of cause-and-effect thinking.
The theory is based on the fact there are some problems you can solve and some you cannot.
Many managers have been conditioned to be decisive and believe that every issue they face is a problem with a root cause to be solved.
Beyond black and white thinking
However, this method of binary thinking can be limiting as many issues are dilemmas to be managed.
Should we centralise our organisation in order to ensure decision making is more consistent or do we decentralise authority so that employees can take greater initiative and adapt to local conditions?
Should we be driven by purpose or profit?
Should we standardise our products or flex to the needs of our customers?
The answers to these questions aren’t black and white.
The choices are interdependent – if you choose one option it impacts the other. There is no end state or final solution, it’s an ongoing tension to be managed.
Many managers have been conditioned to be decisive and believe that every issue they face is a problem with a root cause to be solved
Escaping the binary
Polarity thinking encourages issues to be viewed as a continuum rather than a binary choice.
Instead of choosing one option, you can strategically utilise the advantages of both options as needed.
This method enables more adaptive and sustainable solutions in complex environments where binary or either/or thinking falls short.
In the centralise/decentralise dilemma, both choices have their drawbacks. If you chart the life of many mature organisations, you’ll often observe a continuous swing between centralised control and regional empowerment.
After making a choice, its drawbacks accumulate until they prompt a reversal, and the organisation switches to the opposite polarity.
Instead of choosing one option, you can strategically utilise the advantages of both options as needed
The prevalence of polarities
Once you begin to notice polarities, you’ll realise that they exist in all aspects of our lives.
In the presence of polarities, leaders frequently get caught in debates and power struggles over which polarity to choose.
Examples include the battle between sales or marketing or developing internal talent or hiring externally.
HR, often caught in the middle, holds a unique position to foster positive change.
In the presence of polarities, leaders frequently get caught in debates and power struggles over which polarity to choose
The role of HR in promoting diverse perspectives
By facilitating constructive discussions between representatives of opposing polarities, HR can promote diverse perspectives and mutual understanding.
This approach helps avert the detrimental ‘us versus them’ mindset that plagues many organisations, causing enormous inefficiencies.
Unnamed and unacknowledged polarities can prompt scapegoating, with representatives of one end blaming the other for issues.
Managing polarities to prevent damaging thinking
Statements like “It’s their fault” or “They’re resistant to change” are often clues that there is a polarity to be managed.
Intervening can prevent damaging ‘us versus them’ thinking. Once identified, coaching people to consider each perspective and leverage benefits of both ends can mitigate the issue.
We worked with one high growth organisation that was focused on explosive growth at the expense of the needs of individual employees.
Unnamed and unacknowledged polarities can prompt scapegoating, with representatives of one end blaming the other for issues
Taking control of a worsening situation
The pace was taking a huge toll on employees leading to increased cases of burnout, stress leave and the involvement of Occupational Health.
Senior management responded to concerns about losing key talent by offering early Friday finishes.
However, they didn’t make any changes to the ambition of the plan or address the underlying workload issues.
This provided a dilemma for team members because they would fall even further behind if they took up the offer of an early finish.
As a result, people didn’t take up the pseudo offer and the situation continued to worsen.
Fostering sustainability through polarity management
Introducing polarity management invited a much more informed discussion.
Prior to this, the organisation had clearly chosen one end of the polarity and created an unsustainable situation where they were losing valuable people and risking the wellbeing of their team.
By recognising and managing the two polarities at play – organisation needs and individual needs – the HR leader was able to facilitate much more informed discussions at senior level about how to achieve sustainable success over the longer term.
Introducing polarity management invited a much more informed discussion
Exploring individual employee needs
Rather than just driving more performance by setting higher and higher targets, they were able to recognise the benefits of focusing more on individual employee needs and easing their conditions.
They provided additional resources and involved their people in business planning so that targets were more aligned with operational reality.
Maintaining growth and increasing credibility
As a result, they were able to maintain their growth plans whilst also bringing their people along with them.
Interestingly, this move also increased the credibility of senior leadership in the eyes of employees because they felt they had been really listened to and felt that management finally had their interests at heart.
How to get started with polarity management
- Identify polarities: Recognise competing priorities and signs of ‘us versus them’ thinking in your organisation
- Facilitate discussions: Initiate open conversations between opposing polarities to promote understanding and reduce power struggles
- Leverage both ends: Coach people to consider each perspective and strategically utilise the advantages of both options for sustainable solutions
If you enjoyed this, read: Five ways to win at organisational development and design