Polarities are not the same as problems. A problem may need to be solved with one right answer, but polarities are chronic symptoms to be managed, meaning that attempting a quick fix is likely to be more damaging than helpful.
Dr. Barry Johnson’s concept of polarity management is a way to move beyond quick-fix thinking. Think of it like training a dog. You want the dog to love you, and you also need to instill some discipline so that it obeys your commands. Without love, you won’t form a bond with the dog — and without discipline, you’ll be cleaning your carpets every week and replacing your shoes monthly. You need to find a balance between the two poles over time.
That same logic applies to your business. Hiring too many creatives, for instance, could squeeze out your analytics team, but swinging the other way could create an innovation-less environment. Both departments are valuable, but the balance needs to be managed to create an intellectually safe and successful workplace.
Why is intellectual safety so important?
Questions in business aren’t like math problems: Single correct solutions are rare. Therefore, employees need to work together in an open, trusting, and curious environment to find the best ways to move forward.
A psychologically safe environment is one where every employee feels that his or her contributions are valued, and nobody is afraid to speak up. That psychological safety allows people to pitch both blue-sky ideas and practical, affordable ones without ever thinking they’re about to be shot down.
Creating psychological safety in the workplace will help you bridge the divide between the creative and the possible. One-upping and internal competition leave employees feeling invalidated, but promoting healthy debate and acknowledging different approaches will boost morale and get people focused on the task at hand. Polarity management is a means to create that environment.
How polarity management supports psychological safety in the workplace
One of the biggest mistakes business leaders can make is to tell employees that they should be the opposite of what they are. It’s confrontational, meaning it undermines employees’ psychological security (and maybe even their sense of self).
Polarity management encourages a more supportive approach. If an employee ties his or her value to the company as the number of hours worked, then capping those hours will leave that employee feeling undervalued and misused. Self-esteem will suffer, and motivation will plummet. Instead of telling that employee that his or her approach to work is wrong, encourage the individual to see the benefits of the opposite pole. Time spent away from the office can lead to new and unexpected insights; regular exercise, for instance, boosts thinking skills, etc. Don’t frame overwork as a problem. Use it as an opportunity to encourage psychological flexibility instead.
You don’t need employees to completely change their approaches or personalities. Polarity management is about recognizing the value that everybody can bring. If one employee talks over everybody else, that employee’s peers might start to complain or feel unheard — but telling the talker to pipe down shuts down his or her value, too. Instead, bring the discussion back to intellectual safety and focus on coaching rather than correcting. Highlight the value in other people’s approaches and give employees a chance to learn for themselves.
Psychological safety in the workplace plays a key part in boosting your employees’ potential. An open, intellectually supportive environment gives them an ideal platform to do their best work for your company. The first step toward achieving that end is to see differences as polarities rather than problems.
In a world that’s changing faster than ever before, you’ll need to find even more surefire tricks for success — and making sure your employees feel safe intellectually and emotionally is a great one. After all, who wants to dive into all-important risks without a safety net? Anyone can foster this sense of security by adopting mindful polarity management. By coaching and guiding employees through a wide host of challenges, they won’t just feel valued — they’ll know they’re part of a collaborative, effective team.