Category Archives: polarities

Common pitfalls in leading change

pitfallIn their research on transformational change, Scott Keller and Colin Price, authors of Beyond Performance, have identified common pitfalls that organizations typically encounter on their change journey. Interestingly enough, these pitfalls are all paradoxes that people struggle with in organizational life.

For example, here are a few:

  1. Change vs. Continuity
  2. Planning vs. Piloting/Experimentation
  3. Standardization vs. Autonomous Practices
  4. Pressure for Progress vs. Discovery
  5. Independent Initiatives vs. Connected Initiatives

The key to managing any of these pitfalls is to see them not as EITHER/OR solutions, but to view them as BOTH/AND equations.  For instance:

  1. To manage change and continuity, ask:  What do we need to do to preserve the core of the excellent education we provide, but make room for leaps of innovation that will support student success?
  2. To manage planning and experimentation, ask: How do we balance our planning efforts with wise action that moves progress forward?
  3. To manage standardization and autonomy, ask: What processes would benefit from standardization across our campuses and where is it best to allow for autonomy among colleges and universities?

Well, you get the picture. But what if mere questioning doesn’t help get you unstuck when you are dealing with one of these common pitfalls? That’s when it’s helpful to do some deeper exploratory work.  Using a tool called a polarity map can be extraordinarily helpful to discover what what underlying values and mindsets are responsible for polarizing people in the organization. Most importantly, the process of polarity mapping can help you explore common ground and strategies for moving forward, so you can manage the dilemma effectively.

For resources on understanding polarities, see: Barry Johnson’s book on Polarity Management or a Managing Polarities seminar available through our Talent Management team at MnSCU.

Anita Rios



Leveraging polarities

infinityUnderstanding the normal flow and dynamics of how polarities operate in our world and workplace can give leaders valuable insights into managing not only change efforts but many complex unsolvable problems. In fact, in their August 2013 e-newsletter, the Center for Creative Leadership listed leveraging polarities as one of the key areas that senior executives must master in order to lead strategically.  They state:

Senior leaders constantly wrestle with the strategic and practical implications of priorities that appear to be in conflict. They debate the merits of global vs. regional, rewarding the team vs. rewarding individuals, centralized vs. decentralized. To be successful in today’s environment, leaders must leverage the value of each, rather than viewing them as “either/or.”

I’ve observed that leaders of change can create their own resistance, when they treat the change/stability polarity as an “either/or” choice, rather than a “both/and” solution. This often happens when leaders focus only on the new ideas or improvements that the change brings, while ignoring some of the pitfalls of change.  To head off resistance, it is important for leaders to simultaneously discuss the things that the organization does well and is not changing. Simply put, it can help to speed adoption of change efforts, when leaders discuss both what will be changing and what will be staying the same.

What advice do you have for leaders to leverage the value of both change and stability?

Anita Rios

The more things change….

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Sound familiar? Actually, this statement reflects a paradox or polarity that all leaders must embrace at some point when leading change.

change stay the sameAs I’ve worked with leaders, I’ve learned that ALL change efforts can be managed better when they are fully understood as part of a polarity.  For instance, knowing the benefits and limitations of change and stability can help you better understand people’s points of view and reactions to change efforts. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “People resist change.” While this is often an accurate point of view, it is not a complete one. Often what people are resisting are the downsides of too much change that result in confusion and chaos. Their point of view may also be reinforced by an appreciation of the upsides of stability, which can include continuity and organizational memory. Leaders need to continually manage the benefits of both change and stability, while limiting the negative impacts of each.

This week, I was in a meeting with a colleague, who encouraged our Competency committee to build our efforts from the good work that has already been done over the last few years, rather than starting from scratch. We were tasked with identifying competencies for Chief Human Resource Officers within MnSCU. Her point was a good one. She said that it would demonstrate to our HR colleagues that we valued the work that had gone on before and that we were developing it further. To me, this approach of managing the benefits of change and stability equates to: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” There is no need in change efforts to change everything. And it is important for people to know that their previous contributions have been valued.

Along those same lines, I have to credit our Vice Chancellor for Human Resources. When he started his new appointment, he was charged with crafting a new workplan for Human Resources systemwide. Rather than ignoring previous work that had taken place around creating a mission and broad goals, he honored that work and engaged his leadership team to build upon it and rework it where necessary. It gave him instant credibility in his new leadership role and greater support for the new workplan as it evolved.

Have you experienced the change/stability polarity in your workplace? If so, how?

Anita Rios

For more information on managing polarities, see Barry Johnson’s book on Polarity Management.

You can also participate in a Managing Polarities seminar through our Talent Management unit.

Strike that, reverse it

Willy wonkaHow often have you done or said something and then wished you could take it back? Unfortunately, we usually can’t imitate Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and ask people to “strike that, reverse it.”

One of the more challenging aspects of Acting with Integrity is to admit and learn from our mistakes. I’ve made a couple of public missteps over the past year, as I suppose is inevitable when learning to communicate in a new organizational culture. Fortunately, one can’t die of embarrassment and colleagues are usually kind enough to give you a pass, assuming the same thing doesn’t happen again.

There are a couple of aspects of learning from my mistakes that have been significant this past year.  First, I’ve had to avoid the temptation to block out a bad memory and just pretend the mistake never happened.  By doing so, I would miss an opportunity to grow as a leader.  On the other hand, at some point I need to address it as best as I can and then move on.  Dwelling on past mistakes is equally harmful to leadership development.

Second, I’ve learned a lot from thoughtful colleagues who have had the grace to give me difficult feedback in a constructive way.  It’s very difficult to say “I know it isn’t what you intended, but here’s how that behavior looked to others.”   For the receiver, constructive feedback can also be hard to hear. But backing away from defensiveness and listening carefully can provide valuable insights into our blind spots and allow for growth that can’t come any other way.

Mostly, you can learn from your mistakes without turning into a blueberry along the way.

Dee Anne Bonebright

Leadership is a balancing act

My 16-year-old daughter Emma bounded into my bedroom and hopped on my bed where I was winding down for the night. “How was youth group?” I asked. “Great!” she replied. I asked her what made it great and she said that they talked about whether you can be a good friend by focusing more on truth or on love in your relationships. “Well, what did you learn?” I asked. “You can’t choose one or the other,” Emma said with a big smile, “you have to choose both!” She went on to say that you can’t just share a hard truth with a friend, you have to do it with care and concern….or with love. And conversely, you can’t just express care for someone and avoid telling them something that could help them, because it might be difficult.

Wow! That is one of the lessons I often share with leaders. Whether it is choosing truth and love, or candor and diplomacy, leadership is a balancing act. To be an effective leader, you often have to manage two seemingly opposite, but interdependent alternatives (aka polarities). Here are some examples of leadership polarities that all leaders must manage well:

  • Candor and Diplomacy
  • Guidance and Tolerance
  • Confidence and Humility
  • Grounded and Visionary
  • Structure and Flexibility
  • Control and Empowerment

With my own leadership, I find that I manage some of these polarities extremely well without having to think about it. It just comes naturally. You might look at the list above and come to the same conclusion about yourself.

With other polarities, I need to work harder on managing them. That’s the case with candor and diplomacy. I’m a pretty straightforward, frank person. I often favor candor over diplomacy, especially with those whom I know well. But I also recognize that if I choose to be brutally honest, it could break down trust with the people I lead at work.

At those times, when I am tempted to be overly candid, I recognize the need to pause and ask myself:

  1. How can I convey my concern or perspective while maintaining the relationship?
  2. What can I say that will help the recipient of my feedback feel valued?

On the other hand, I tend to use more diplomacy with those I know less well or who are positioned higher in an organization than I am. In some situations, I have found myself holding back from expressing an opinion. At those times, I need to ask myself:

  1. Am I holding back on sharing a valid viewpoint because I’m afraid of what that person will think of me?
  2. Will I erode trust with others, because they sense that I am not forthcoming with my opinion or with valuable information?

I know that to be truly effective as a leader I have to choose BOTH candor and diplomacy and manage them well.

When you look at the list of polarities above, is there one that seems to require more work from you to manage well?

If so, what questions can you ask yourself in order to manage it better?

To read more about polarities, see Barry Johnson’s work on polarities at:

In addition, our Talent Management team offers a half-day seminar on managing polarities: We wrapped up a seminar on polarities at Itasca Community College in November and will be scheduling another one in early 2013. We’ll keep you posted!

Anita Rios