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The Magic of Both/And Thinking from Exploring Polarities

This article was based on episode 256 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Members of the Modern Manager community get two months of Fast Forward membership for free. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

Balance is key in the workplace. As managers, we are always trying to figure out the right configuration of flexibility and structure that our team needs or the amount of autonomy vs. control that is reasonable. What we’re searching for, in other words, is how to live with and leverage polarities.

The concept of polarities is fascinating because it requires us to embrace a wider viewpoint in which we need multiple perspectives. It is the epitome of the ‘both/and’ mindset. I’m so grateful to have Ronni Hendel delve into it with me. Ronni is a coach and facilitator for individual leaders, teams, and organizations. She supports her clients in building their capacity to achieve results through others and to navigate through increased complexity.

Ronni explains how polarities are interdependent opposites that are both useful and necessary. For example, candor and diplomacy. Being candid is incredibly important in our conversations, yet if we are too candid all the time, we eventually alienate people. On the other hand, if we are too diplomatic all the time, our own voice gets lost in the midst of enabling everyone else’s. Instead of either extreme, we strive to combine candor and diplomacy to optimize our communications. That is leveraging a polarity.

If your team comes across any challenging situation that isn’t easy to solve, chances are you’ve stumbled across a polarity. Unlike decisions with one right answer or a set of independent good options (should we hire candidate A, B, or C), navigating polarities requires us to expand our thinking. Ronni guides us on how to coach your team to address polarities in order to find a healthy, balanced perspective that sets you up for long-term success.


When we start to dig into polarities, we need to be really honest with ourselves about our subjective perspective. Each of us will lean into one side and have at least a slightly negative reaction to the other. For example, if you prefer flexibility and see its many benefits as desirable, you likely also think that structure is boring and limiting.

By acknowledging your own preference, you give yourself permission to explore other perspectives. To do this, first try to identify the benefits of the other side. Continuing with our example, structure can help streamline projects and create consistency or stability.

Hopefully, you’ll then realize that you need both in your life. This is the power of polarities and effective both/and thinking. Now, we are able to explore how to capture all the upsides of the polarity while minimizing the downsides.


When we start to understand that different perspectives that our teammates are coming from may be due to polarities, everything begins to shift. We stop looking at things only from our preference and begin to hold a both/and mindset. We start to see how incorporating more or less of one side can benefit the situation, or how our disagreement really stems from where we all lean within each polarity. When you are able to come together as a team to identify and work through a polarity, you’ve elevated the group’s decision-making capabilities.

Teach the Concept

Give your team a brief overview of polarities as a concept. Explain how within every conflict or tension there are probably polarities at work. Illustrate with concepts such as safety and risk, transparency and privacy, and cost and quality. Ask your team where they see themselves lean within each of these polarities.

Identify the Polarity at Play

When your team finds itself in a difficult situation, pull out a list of polarities (there are lots of resources online) to examine what might be going on. Notice what words keep coming up in these situations; that language can be a hint that might indicate a certain polarity. For example, feeling rushed to launch a new product might indicate a polarity of delivering perfection vs. learning in the field. Note that there may be more than one polarity causing tension.

Create Your Polarity Map

Now it’s time to chart both the benefits and overuses of each side of the polarity. Brainstorm together and capture in writing the upsides and downsides. Then, consider what it would look like to hold both sides of the polarity. For example, what might powerfully holding both autonomy and control look and feel like?

Find the Third Way

Now that you know where you’re headed, ask what you or the organization needs to do to be able to follow through with this both/and “third way.”

Ink out some practical strategies to make sure you can follow through with these new ideas. Ronni recommends the book Navigating Polarities by Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis for templates on creating these maps. The power of mapping out your new approach is that you can return to it to monitor how you’re doing, and remind yourself where you want to go.


The amazing thing about working with polarities is that once you start, you can’t stop! Polarities are everywhere, so as you work on one, others will start to show up as well. When these tensions surface as polarities, you may notice some concerns seeping in. Be aware of any fear that may come up as you attempt to change your approach. Sometimes addressing polarities means shifting your identity or changing how colleagues feel about you. For example, if you’ve built a reputation as a collaborator, you may worry that being more direct will have negative consequences. Remember that with polarities, you’re looking to get the best of both worlds, which in this case, means speeding up processes where decisive action is more appropriate than collaborative discussion.

Addressing polarities is not for the faint of heart. It takes both courage and vulnerability to honestly look inside and assess where you are and how you need to shift. Create practical polarity maps to help you and your team move forward. The challenging situations that polarities bring out can be a catalyst for deep conversations that put your team into a much more balanced, sustainable framework for the future.



Get a polarities worksheet to help you identify when a polarity is at play and map the polarity for optimal leverage. Included is a list of common polarities in leadership and the workplace. This worksheet is available when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at

This article was based on episode 256 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.



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