Managing Polarities: A Key Skill for the Well-Intentioned Manager

What Comes After Plan B?Being a great manager means balancing the needs of your people with the results you are trying to achieve. This can be a fiendishly hard balance to strike, and maintain. For example:

As managers we are expected to have the best interest of the organization as a prime objective and yet the needs of each of our direct reports are also critical. The process of balancing both is a polarity because it involves two, interdependent, correct answers to the question: “In my relationship with this person, should I be concerned about her, or should I be concerned about her ability to perform her tasks?”

As a well-intentioned manager, you need to pay attention to your people’s needs, and you need to keep an eye on the extent to which things are actually getting done. If you just take care of your direct report and neglect the tasks at hand, it won’t be a very satisfactory solution. Staying focused on getting the tasks done and neglecting your direct report won’t be a very satisfactory solution either.

Managing well is a response to a polarity. Barry Johnson, the author of Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems defines polarity management as the identification and management of unsolvable problems. He says that a polarity is created when a situation has two or more right answers that are interdependent.

Using Johnson’s approach, the polarity we are describing might look like this.

Polarity Graphic

While we are constantly striving for the highest positive outcome for both the organization and individuals, sometimes it’s just impossible to achieve. Events conspire to push things into the negative. But nothing lasts forever and the objective is to keep things moving back toward the positive while minimizing the negative.

Dealing with Polarities

For managers faced with the seemingly unsolvable problem of balancing individual needs and organizational imperatives here are some steps you can take to help others and keep your sanity:

  • Recognize that when you feel that you are “caught between and rock and a hard place” it’s because you are. Sometimes it helps just to realize that your situation is in fact extremely difficult and that feeling frustrated is an appropriate response.
  • Empathize fully with your employee – listen well, make sure your employee feels heard and advocate for what is needed in the situation. Often, once a person feels that they have been understood, they are empowered to make different choices and rise to a challenge in new ways.
  • Engage in creative problem solving together. Just because you are the manager, it doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Go for a walk together – a study out of Stanford University found that just walking for 6-15 minutes increases creative thinking by 60 percent.
  • Take care of yourself – extreme stress and worrying about others requires extreme self care. Your ability to be patient, kind, fair, and balanced depends on staying reasonably well-rested, keeping your blood sugar consistent, and breathing deeply.

A New Way of Thinking

Every individual has needs, thoughts and feelings about their work environment that must be attended to. The organization needs constant attention to strategic goals and operational imperatives – and often will require extra effort or even sacrifice from employees. And as a manager, there are days when you’re caught in the middle. Instead of problems with a correct answer, you have unsolvable problems that require a whole new way of thinking. One excellent tool to support this kind of thinking is Polarity Management.

About this new column

Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned is a new Saturday feature for a very select group – the well intentioned manager. Leadership is hard, and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for another unique problem and resources that can help.

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