Tag Archives: polarities

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

How good people make tough choices

One of my favorite books on ethics is How Good People Make Tough Choices, by Rushworth Kidder.  In it, he discusses the difficulty of deciding between two answers when both are right.

“When good people encounter tough choices, it is rarely because they’re facing a moral temptation. Only those living in a moral vacuum will be able to say, “On the one hand is the good, the right, the true, and noble. On the other hand is the awful, the wicked, the false, and the base. And here I stand, equally attracted to each.” (p. 17)

Rather, Kidder says that the really tough choices are between alternatives that are equally right and good. For example, how do you choose between the individual and the community, or between justice and mercy?  As a supervisor, how do you choose between consistency on the one hand, and respect for individual differences on the other?  If you’ve attended our workshops on managing polarities, then you’re familiar with this concept.

Kidder makes a convincing case for the importance of what he calls “ethical fitness” for helping leaders to manage these dilemmas. This includes:

  • the ability to recognize moral challenges and respond from an active conscience,
  • a “lively perception” of the difference between right and wrong, and
  • the ability to make right choices and live by them.

Ethical fitness enables us to implement February’s leadership competency, acting with integrity.  Like any other form of fitness, it requires exercise.  It’s not a goal to be achieved and marked off the checklist, it’s an ongoing process.

For me, ethical fitness requires understanding my personal values and being intentional about acting them out in the workplace.  I can choose to demonstrate respect when responding to the employee who misses a key deadline – for the third time in a month.  I can reflect on the example of a leader who expresses dissenting opinions in a constructive way.  I can listen and learn when someone gives me feedback about times when I fall short.  These activities help me exercise my integrity so that it is in shape when it’s needed to resolve a difficult dilemma.

What do you do to enhance your ethical fitness?

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: http://www.polaritypartnerships.com/

In addition, our Talent Management team offers a half-day seminar on managing polarities: http://www.hr.mnscu.edu/training_and_development/AdministratorDevelopment/Administrator_Dev.html 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