eLearning Skills 2030: Managing Polarities

eLearning Skills 2030: Managing Polarities
Natali _ Mis/Shutterstock.com
Summary: Polarities as complex sets of opposite problems or dilemmas that leaders cannot adequately solve by selecting one over the other. Understanding and managing polarities can result in more curiosity, innovation, and better performance outcomes in your organization.

Shift Your Mindset From "Either/Or" To "Both/And"

As machines become increasingly more accurate and intelligent, we humans will need to sharpen our cognitive skills. One of your primary responsibilities as a Learning & Development leader is to ensure that you empower the workforce to develop the four sets of skills critical to thriving in 2030. I have compiled a series of articles titled eLearning Skills 2030 to explore all the skills to help you future-proof your career and make your job easier. This article explores the skill of managing polarities, why it is critical, and how to sharpen it.

What Are Polarities?

In his book “Polarity Management,” [1] Barry Johnson defines polarities as complex sets of opposite problems or dilemmas that cannot be adequately solved by selecting one over the other because each set is dependent on the other. Polarities are ubiquitous because the world we live in is complex and volatile. Examples of polarities include cost and quality, innovation and standardization, planning and taking action, and centralized and decentralized processes. By understanding polarities, you can begin to think more broadly, shifting from an either/or mindset to a both/and mindset. You can manage polarities better by examining them holistically and then leveraging the best of each while avoiding the limits of each one.

Why Is Managing Polarities Necessary?

As a leader, you are faced with the volume, velocity, and complexity of change more than ever. As Barry Johnson states, polarity management skills will make you a more effective leader in several ways, including improving your ability to discern between problems that can be solved and those that are unsolvable; enhancing your understanding of resistance to organizational change across your organization; increasing your effectiveness negotiating with those that oppose your proposed changes; increasing your effectiveness as a third-party mediator, and finally, improving your decision making ability in complex contexts. Managing polarities is shifting from an “either-or “ mindset to a “both-and” mindset. In their Harvard Business Review article, Wendy K. Smith, Marianne W. Lewis, and Michael L. Tushman define such dilemmas as paradoxes and advocate that you as a leader can benefit from embracing a paradoxical mindset in three ways:

  • Shifting from rigid consistency to mindful inconsistency: When examining two business objectives that seem polar opposites, such as maximizing shareholder value versus optimizing social responsibility, with a both/and mindset, you will more readily embrace both as valid and interdependent objectives and seek ways to drive resources to address both.
  • Shifting from a limited-resources to abundant-resources mindset: With a both/and mindset, you and your team can think beyond traditional constraints and seek new ways of doing business, including new technologies and private-public partnerships, among others.
  • Shifting from seeking stability and certainty to embracing change and uncertainty: With a both/and mindset, you and your team will be more bullish about change and, therefore, more willing to lean into uncertainty, leverage curiosity, and drive innovation.

How To Manage Polarities

Johnson has created a structure to manage polarities that consist of four quadrants: the upper left and bottom left quadrants form the left pole, which is the one side of the polarity, and the upper right and bottom right quadrants form the right pole or the other side of the polarity. The upper quadrant of each pole denotes the positive elements of the pole, whereas the lower quadrant for each pole denotes the negative elements of that pole. To manage the polarity, you need to follow a sequence of four steps of analysis:

  1. Beginning from the lower left quadrant, you address the negatives of the left pole, and then you move diagonally up to the upper right quadrant and address the positives of the right pole.
  2. From the upper right quadrant, after addressing the positives of the right pole, you move directly below to the lower right quadrant and address the negatives of the right pole.
  3. After addressing the negatives of the right pole in the lower left quadrant, you move diagonally up to the upper left quadrant to address the positives of the left pole.
  4. After addressing the positives of the left pole from the upper left quadrant, you move to the lower left quadrant and address the negatives of the left pole.

Polarity Partnerships offers a visual example of polarities, such as short-term tactics and long-term strategy, and how your management approach flows in an infinity-like loop as you navigate from one quadrant to another to explore and understand the positive and the negative elements of each pole.


Using Johnson’s chart and polarity management approach, you are able to see the polarities clearly, map them in terms of upsides and downsides, assess them in conjunction with each other, and finally, leverage their upsides to create a new solution. In his Harvard Business Learning article, Larry Clark reminds us how humans are uncomfortable with ambiguity and tension and tend to define them as problems. Once faced with problems, we try to solve them by seeking binary responses and solutions. However, as Abraham Maslow said, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail.”[2] By understanding polarities and using Johnson’s structure to analyze them, you can practice identifying them more quickly and managing them better. As you manage polarities better, you and your team can shift from an either/or mindset, which is limiting and rigid, to a both/and mindset which broadens your view, deepens the context, and allows you to zoom in and take advantage of the upsides of each pole resulting in better decision making and positive performance outcomes.

As a leader, you can benefit from understanding and managing polarities and, as a result, foster more curiosity, innovation, and better performance outcomes in your organization. You also have a responsibility to encourage and empower your team and your employees to sharpen their ability to manage polarities so that they can continue to develop and thrive today and lead to 2030 and beyond.


[1] Polarity Management

[2] Abraham Maslow