July 31, 2023

The Failings of Forced Polarities

Even I was convinced that I was on one end of the continuum.

Would you like to know one of my favorite below-the-line moves? False polarities. I love them. Someone will say “it’s either this way or that way,” and I get to wisely ask something like “might there be other possibilities we haven’t considered?” Noticing false polarities and interrogating them is a good shift move, especially for someone who enjoys making reasoned (or so I think) arguments as much as I do.

I also have found there can be wonderful above-the-line exercises that leverage the tension created by polarities. When I use this tool, I always acknowledge that the polarity is designed to instigate tension and provoke thinking, that what I’m working with is almost always a false polarity. With those caveats named, I’ve found that playing with polarities on teams can be enormously clarifying. It can promote alignment in minutes instead of days or months.

Here are three ways I’ve set up polarities for purposes of learning, coaching, candor, and cohesion:

  1. My first foray was with an online dating company that wanted to focus on people who had mindfulness mindsets and practices. I had a story that there were differing opinions among the senior leaders about how staunchly to hew to the mindfulness theme, including some belief that hewing too closely might come at the expense of growth by limiting the appeal of the site to less ostensibly mindful users. At my first offsite with this company, I created what they for years after called the “Crystal Scale.” I placed a long piece of tape on the wall. On the left was seriously hippie out there, and on the right was transactional, corporate, and suited for the typical person. I gave everyone 5 post-its, and each person named a company or an idea on each post-it note. Then, each person walked up to the continuum and placed their post-it notes where they believed they would go on the Crystal Scale. There was little discussion about McDonald’s, Boeing, Coke (far right) or about veganism, reiki, and psychedelics (far left). We had discussions around locating brands like Oprah, Apple, Chobani, et al. At the end of this part of the exercise, the group put a star on the continuum for where it wanted the company to land on the scale.
  1. One of my coaching clients has among its set of company values, Entrepreneurship and Kindness. At a leadership training, we dove into this false polarity for purposes of learning. I handed out cards that read E and K to everyone. I asked all 80 participants to hold up the card they default to most often. We discussed ways in which kindness might sometimes seem like it comes at the expense of entrepreneurship. For example, someone on a team moving very quickly and someone else wanting to garner more consensus before pushing ahead. I think it was a productive conversation, leading to more cohesion around where these leaders want to land as a theoretical set point for the next chapter of the company.
  1. Just the other day, I was facilitating a leadership offsite with a client that has been saying it wants to make its culture higher performing and faster. So I used the tape again. On the far right was speedy, improvisational, risk-preferring. On the far left was careful, measured, consensus-driven. The 17-person leadership team all placed post-it notes in the spot where they thought the company has been for the last year and another note on where each individual would like it to be for the next year. This discussion was striking. The team was almost completely aligned, acknowledging that they were far left on the careful side and they wanted to move materially right over the next year. The CFO added an extra, fabulous wrinkle — garnering agreement on where on the continuum each team should be in the next year (legal and compliance middle left, go-to-market far right). 

Each one of these exercises in my view created rapid alignment using the tensions that are inherent in running companies over time and making updated agreements around branding and values.

Super! If you like this tool, have at it.

But then it hit me yesterday: I have been holding myself in a false dichotomy without noticing that the dichotomy is false and without noticing that I was placing myself in the wrong spot on the continuum. And I was using this to shame myself.

I am and have always been pretty improvisational in my thoughts and actions. Sometimes this is incredibly helpful. I’m flexible. I’m adaptable. I can move out of my house for a reason and live in the quite small ADU in my backyard. I get in and out of hotel rooms with elan. I was the state champ of extemporaneous speech as a kid. I don’t love scripts. I write quickly and outsource the editing because it’s not as fun for me. Ok. Fine. Sometimes this quality is not helpful to me or others. I almost never know what’s on my calendar for the next day or months until I look. I don’t do well planning ahead for meals. I don’t instinctively do handy things like share agendas for meetings ahead of or at the start of meetings.

I know my strengths and weaknesses in this area, but somehow I started developing a story that I am not just capable of being improvisational, but that I am only improvisational.

If there were a continuum between deliberate and improvisational, I figured I was on the far right.

Worse, I started making fun of myself for this. It felt like humor, but inside, I realized there was a bit of an insult in it to myself. 

I told my friend Vlada ahead of our interview at the Conscious Entrepreneur Summit that I had “actually created an agenda.” She responded as fast as a whip: “That way you’ll have something you can throw away.” We both laughed. I am proud of how I conduct interviews (and how I conducted cross-examinations as a lawyer), but there was an ouch there. Not only had I convinced myself that I was far right improvisational (read: not deliberative at all), I’d convinced my friends, clients, and colleagues.

I see now how wrong this is about me and how painful my false polarity and my sense of my location on it has been.

I am, actually, extremely deliberative. In truth, I always make agendas for meetings. I also almost always toss them out. But I make them. And that is deliberate. And the fact that I take the time to think through a meeting or facilitation and then discard my plan doesn’t mean the advance work was useless. It often is the reason I can pivot. It also makes me feel safe.

I’ve always known that although I’ve had many careers, I always pivoted between them from more caution than people think. I started my first ecommerce company while I was employed as a lawyer. I left my lawyer job after I had a new job in business development for a large television company.

The same is true on this continuum. My Google Workspace is clean as hell. My inbox is at zero often. I document everything. I work with a gifted EA who supports me and helps me pick up the pieces that inevitably drop. I did well in school, but that was the result of working hard. I’m not one of those brilliant humans who shows up for the final and crushes it.

No one is either totally deliberate or totally improvisational. That’s the nature of false polarities.

I want to let you know that I am not as intuitive, instinctual, or fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants as I’ve led you and me to believe. I’m smack in the middle of this polarity, and I like it there.

Take a look at your life. What false polarity are you unconsciously living with? How accurate is your placement of you on that continuum? And how do you feel about that once you make the whole racket conscious?

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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