Startup HR: Working with Polarities

It is human nature to want to understand and organize information so that it makes sense to us.

One of the ways we do this is by comparing and contrasting things: this is good and that is bad, this is easy and this is hard, and so on. It is a completely useful and natural way to make meaning for ourselves, but as leaders we have to be open to seeing things not as “either/or,” but as “and.”

Our goal is to find the best of each side and bring it forward in our people and ourselves. Robert Quinn talks about working with leadership polarities as an opportunity to drive higher performance. Rather than seeking to find the middle ground and hold on for dear life, where can we open our minds to both sides and bring each forward when it is most beneficial?

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Some of the polarities Quinn talks about are likely already familiar to you—tough love, for example. This is about finding a way to lead with assertiveness and compassion, holding accountability while fostering creativity and connection.

Another polarity is detached interdependence, where we have a strong sense of purpose that guides our inner strength as well as a recognition of the value of rich relationships with others and openness to their ideas. Or reflective action, the ability to be contemplative and get things done.

There are eight polarities that Quinn identifies in his book, Building The Bridge As You Walk On It, each of which challenge us to embrace both sides of the same coin to bring out the best in each.

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One of the most interesting components of embracing polarities is that by their nature they are divisive: most people will value one more than the other, or have a preference in terms of which one they excel at. Our goal is not to focus on the pros and cons of each one in order to pick one over the other, but instead to focus on the pros of both sides, staying mindful of the warning signs of overuse—the canaries in the coal mine, if you will.

Focusing on the pros of the side you like, and the cons of the side you don’t, only further polarizes the system and entrenches people away from one another. To “unstick” things, focus on the pros of the side you don’t support first, and see how you can bring more of that into play.

Ultimately it is a dance between both sides, where we shift from one to the other and back again in a cycle. Our goal as leaders is to keep the cycle from shifting downwards into the negatives of each side, and consciously stay above the fold where the benefits of each shine.

Accepting that it is a cycle, that we will shift naturally from one to the other, is the key to benefitting from the strengths that each side has to offer.