Category Archives: polarities

That makes no sense!!

conflict-management-techniques

“That’s crazy,” “I could never do it that way,” You’re wrong,” “No, listen to me!”

Are you hearing statements like these at work? When new ideas are introduced are you seeing battle lines drawn? How do you lead for the common good when it seems like your people have completely different goals in mind?

Well, not to ignore how hard it is but the place to start is with dialogue. Which means helping people actually listen to each other, even if they disagree with what the other person is saying. Your goal is to help people move from:

  • arguing
  • persuading or telling
  • focusing on differences
  • talking at each other

All of which lead to frustration, lack of trust and either/or thinking.

And move to:

  • listening
  • talking with each other
  • problem-solving
  • looking at options

That requires finding some sort of common or shared interests as a starting point for dialogue. Instead of focusing on the dangers of the other point of view and highlighting the positive of their own point of view, help people work on specific issues by looking deeper and identifying underlying values, goals, and concerns that both sides share.

We encourage the leaders we work with to ask these two straightforward questions to build trust and identify shared interests.

  1. What do we all want?
  2. We do we all fear or want to avoid?

It will take work to keep people from focusing on their initial points of view and look at the bigger picture, but facilitating this conversation will help you and your people find a common good you can all agree on, and that is a great starting point!

Todd Thorsgaard

Common good doesn’t mean we all agree

conflictLeading for the common good isn’t peaceful. Agreement isn’t the goal. Paraphrasing writer Walter Lippmann, “when we all think alike, no one thinks very much.” To work together for the common good a leader needs to be prepared for conflict and embrace conflict.

Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and get Stuff Done, reminds us that for teams to be effective and work together they need to experience tension and disagreement, wrestle with it, push back, open up, share, listen and only then move forward. It’s not a quiet process and not what we often think of as good leadership. But think about the best teams you have worked on. Was it acceptable to have a different opinion? To raise a concern? Or to even get a little worked up about the problem you were addressing? I bet it was!

If you are willing to dive into the messiness of collaboration and conflict as a necessary element of moving towards a common good, Davey recently shared three ideas that leaders can use to help their teams embrace “productive conflict.”

  1. Define, discuss and understand the different roles and agendas of each person on the team. Take the time to ensure that everyone understands that each person has an  agenda based on their role and that each agenda is different. Not better or worse but different. And that it is normal for the different agendas to lead to conflict that is not personal but necessary to reach the best solution in the end. Make it OK to disagree based on their unique roles and responsibilities.
  2. Pay attention to style differences between team members. Use a tool or a facilitated discussion to clarify the different approaches team members use to learn, take in information, communicate, make decisions, or do tasks. Ensure that each style is described in a positive way and highlight the value that each style brings to the team. Finally, highlight how it is natural for conflict to arise due to style differences and that you expect people to leverage their styles to facilitate collaboration, even if it gets uncomfortable.
  3. Set ground rules on acceptable dissension. Have an open conversation and identify what behaviors lead to conflict that improves how the team functions and what behaviors actually destroy trust and teamwork. Describe what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and the process the team will use to hold each other accountable.

As nice as peace and calm can be, leadership is a lot messier and noisier – and that’s OK!

Todd Thorsgaard

The never ending debate?

Best of 2015, first published on March 4, 2015
As the title suggests this dilemma cannot be vanquished but only revisited and managed – not solved!
–Todd Thorsgaard

disagreeEver since we could argue it seems as if people have been debating the merits of working for the common good or working for individual success and survival. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher, wrote in 1651 that we needed government to enforce behaviors that support the common good. The economist Adam Smith argued in 1776 that we must establish a free economic market to ensure that the common good wins. Otherwise the power of individual success will win.

The Selfish GeneI first got involved in this debate as a behavioral biology student in 1976 when Richard Dawkins published one of my favorite books, The Selfish Gene. At the time it was described as “the most thrilling stretches of explanatory writing ever penned. It’s breathtaking.” Dawkins continued the scientific debate that is occurring today: is it better to act for the common good or is it better to act for the good of the individual?

While this debate has fueled many wonderful conversations and arguments on college campuses, during long car trips, or at the local bar it highlights a dilemma that all leaders face. Do I focus on the success of my team and our services or do I focus on the success of the larger organization, even if it hurts my team or my success?

What if there isn’t a “right” answer and instead it is actually a polarity that you can leverage? In her 2014 post, Leveraging polarities,  Anita introduced the concept of polarity thinking as a tool for leaders to use when facing these types of ongoing dilemmas. A recent article from the Polarity Partnership Group highlights the need to recognize the benefits of supporting the common good AND supporting your team while also acknowledging and acting on the downside of the common good AND the downside of team-focused success.

Over the next month we will be sharing tips and tools you can use to reap the benefits of focusing on the common good in your organization. Yet, in today’s complex environment we must also follow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice and “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It isn’t a debate between the common good and the good of your team, it is a polarity of the common good and the good of your team.

Todd Thorsgaard

A balancing act

tightrope blog“Step with care and great tact. And remember life is a Great Balancing Act”  –Dr. Seuss

As we near the Thanksgiving holiday, I’m reminded both of how thankful I am for the terrific team I work with and the talented people we serve in our colleges and universities. At the same time, I’m very cognizant of the great balancing act all leaders must engage in to be effective. This week, balancing work and home is really prominent for me, given the fact that I’m hosting Thanksgiving for my family and in-laws. That means tons of preparation; like shopping, cleaning, roasting the turkey and cooking all of the wonderful side dishes that go with it. That on top of a busy work schedule this week feels a little like walking a tightrope with every step carefully planned and executed. Every hour on my calendar is dedicated to a particular task or activity, whether it is for work or home.

In addition to balancing work and home, leaders must also balance many seemingly opposite characteristics in order to be effective, such as:

  • Confidence and Humility
  • Candor and Diplomacy
  • Guidance and Tolerance
  • Control and Empowerment
  • Structure and Flexibility
  • Planning and Implementation
  • Decisiveness and Mindfulness

You’ll notice that each of these characteristics appear to be polar opposites. They are called polarities. Leaders must sometimes walk a tightrope in balancing the two. They can’t choose one characteristic or pole to the exclusion of the other. For example, good leaders balance confidence with humility. If they focus too much on confidence, they can appear arrogant. And if they are focused solely on humility, they can appear to completely lack confidence in their own abilities. Think about leaders you’ve known. What has been the effect on those they lead if they have overfocused on confidence? Have you known anyone who has overfocused on humility? What has been the result? In my observation, leaders who are successful approach both confidence and humility as a great balancing act.

As with any skill set, balancing some leadership polarities just comes naturally for us. Others are a bit of a stretch. In the structure/flexibility polarity, I tend to overfocus on structure at times. I like to be prepared and do quite a bit of planning in order to ensure that leadership programs, events, and presentations go well. And yes, that same preparation extends to our family Thankgiving celebration. Sometimes that means that I can have trouble shifting gears in the moment if something happens to upset all those plans. I know I need to increase my tolerance for flexibility and to stretch my skills in thinking on my feet so I stay nimble in the moment. Which of the leadership polarities listed above do you balance naturally? And which ones do you have to work at?

Anita Rios

 

 

When cultural fit goes too far

whisperingCan you believe what he did? What was she thinking? Where did he get the idea to do that?

How do you react when you hear people on your team making statements like these? How important is a “smooth operating” team to you?

While a team that embraces the culture of the organization and holds a set of shared values, beliefs and unstated assumptions can be a competitive advantage, there is also a dark side of culture that leaders need to recognize.

There has been a spate of stories and articles recently describing the downside of an over reliance on cultural fit in the workplace. Inadvertently, in the quest to hire and develop aligned work teams, organizations have created road blocks to diversity and have reinforced conformity and exclusion. Organizational cultural fit has morphed into “personal” fit which can lead to exclusion.

To leverage organizational culture and not personal similarity, Lauren A. Rivera, associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, encourages leaders to use data and focus on the traits, behaviors, values and past experience that are directly related to job performance and the overall success of the organization.

In the end leaders need to manage the tension between personal fit and diversity within the organization.

Todd Thorsgaard

 

 

Limits of collaboration

teamwork1 free to use“Hackman’s paradox: Groups have natural advantages: they have more resources than individuals; greater diversity of resources; more flexibility in deploying the resources; many opportunities for collective learning; and, the potential for synergy. Yet studies show that their actual performance often is subpar relative to “nominal” groups (i.e. individuals given the same task but their results are pooled.) The two most common reasons: groups are assigned work that is better done by individuals or are structured in ways that cap their full potential.”
~ Richard Hackman, Harvard professor and team expert

Wait a minute! Most of the business and leadership literature published in the last couple decades extolls the virtues of collaboration in our workplaces. And it seems that collaboration is the new mantra among leaders in higher education, with leaders admonishing staff and faculty to “move out of their silos” or “create cross-disciplinary or cross-campus partnerships.”  Yet, as Richard Hackman observed, collaboration does have its limitations.

The benefits of collaboration are great, and can include:

  • Diversity of Perspectives: bringing people from varying disciplines and backgrounds together to work on a project can generate greater creativity and problem-solving by looking at things from different angles
  • Increased Synergy: forming collaborative teams with members who have varied expertise and clear roles and responsibilities can bring new solutions to the table
  • Balanced Decision Making: including stakeholders in decisions can reduce the occurrence biased or partisan decisions as they look at the effect of their decisions on all stakeholder groups

However, collaboration does have its limits, and if overused in an organization, can result in:

  • Group Think:  groups that work together over time can sometimes be lulled into “going along” with a persuasive member
  • Mediocre Results: involving more people in a collaboration can water down the results due to the number of compromises in the project that are made to satisfy all stakeholders
  • Slow Progress: depending on the scope of the collaboration and the size of the group, including numerous stakeholders in multiple decisions can slow down the effort

Like other paradoxes or polarities that we manage in our workplaces, like change and continuity, collaboration is best seen as one part of a polarity between competition and collaboration. Both have its own benefits and limitations. As leaders, our role is often to determine where is it most advantageous to employ collaborative efforts and where might we employ competitive efforts.

How have you managed the collaboration vs. competition paradox in your work?

Anita Rios

Not again!

Best of 2014, first published on February 19, 2014.
Yes, every year the holiday season sneaks up on me and I scramble to pack in all the fun, festivities and craziness before the year ends! In a similar manner, the transformational changes you are leading in higher education also will continue to reappear. Not because something is wrong but because leaders face adaptive, complex and ever-changing changes!  — Todd Thorsgaard

 

How often does this thought run through your mind, “I thought that last change had solved our problem, I can’t believe I have to deal with it again!” Ryan-Gander-Oh-No-Not-Aga-005

It seems like many of the changes that vex leaders are related to recurring issues that keep popping up, again and again. Does that mean we are making mistakes in our change leadership? Have the wrong solution or the wrong people on the team? I believe not! A more accurate assessment of your current state may be that you are dealing with an adaptive challenge.

Adaptive problems require a longer term change strategy to ensure success than technical problems do, as described by Dr. Ronald Heifetz in the following video. Heifitz, the founder of the Center for Public Leadership and a Senior Lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Affairs, describes the differences between adaptive challenges and so-called technical problems and highlights adaptive challenges as requiring a “sustained period of disequilibrium.” The nature of adaptive challenges means that any resulting changes will evolve and shift over time and not be able to be implemented and done with. Your change management efforts will need to support “a productive zone of disturbance and discomfort” over a long period of time  Dr. Ronald Heifetz video

Learning to recognize the differences between adaptive challenges and technical problems will help you as you assess your current state and develop your change strategy. It may also help you feel less stressed as “problems” resurface, like the critters in “whack a mole!” whack a mole

Todd Thorsgaard