It seems that the New Year is a time to contemplate the difficult questions that we battle with all year. For me, this year is no exception. As a working mother, I actually started contemplating my work and home goals and thoughts about both are brewing in my subconscious. One of the main issues my colleagues and I battle with is how to” solve” the work/home balance dilemma. As I thought harder about the issue, the word polarity management surfaced, and I remembered a conference that I attended a few years back about how some problems actually have no solution, and should only be continuously managed. This “aha” moment gave birth to my 2016 goal: to have a high “polarity quotient” at home and at work!

Polarity Defined

Dr. Barry Johnson, an organizational consultant, who wrote Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, defines polarities as “ongoing, chronic issues that are unavoidable and unsolvable”, and those issues cannot be solved using traditional problem solving methods since they are interdependent and have diametrically opposed right answers. Some examples of polarities are: Discipline and freedom, long term and short term, trust and suspicion, stability and change, individual and team, and directive management and participative management.

The reason why many of us try to solve problems that are “unsolvable” is because our mind is academically trained to have one right solution to a problem as 95-99 % of problems we are asked to solve in formal education are problems with a single right answer (either/or). Of the remaining 1-5%, they are problems with more than one right answer that are interdependent opposites (both/and). A second reason why we are likely to use either/or problem solving for a polarity is that they look alike. An either/or problem is often half of a polarity to manage and is not sustainable. Therefore, good polarity management gets the best of both world-work life and home life-while avoiding the limits of either. Poor polarity management happens when there is an over-focus on one side to the neglect of the other, which generates resistance and failure. Therefore, to manage a polarity well, we need to look at both sides of any issue.

Managing a Polarity

Having a discussion with my family on work-life, home-life polarity helped me add another dimension to our conversation and way of communication. Understanding the pros and cons of each side, and the natural flow of energy from one side to the other, allowed us as a family to think of creative options that have sustainable outcomes and is supported by all family members. Here is the exercise we went through together:

  • We recognized that home-life; work-life is a polarity that needs to be managed well if we want to be happy.
  • We created a complete picture of the pros and cons of paying attention to each side which resulted in the realization that we need both.
  • We agreed on options so that attention is given to both sides.
  • We agreed that in some instances it is not feasible to focus on both sides in an equal fashion but choosing the right direction to lean towards depends on the situation.
  • We agreed on a mutual tolerance level and the early warning signs so I can take corrective actions.
  • We agreed to inquire/listen more!

Keeping polarity management principles in mind and moving toward “Both/And” rather than “Either/Or” thinking is key to successfully manage not only our personal life issues but also our work life issues. If you are leading a home, a team or an organization, next time you find yourself not able to solve a problem, it just might be a polarity that needs to be managed and not “solved.”

by: Elham Barghouty, manager, Human Capital, Consulting at Deloitte Middle East