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Polarity Management: A Unique Leadership and Problem Solving Solution

Originally published
Originally published: 4/4/2016

As a leader, it's important to improve your decision making process when faced with tough problems and tough decisions.


One of the more challenging things leaders and owners face on a day-to-day basis is making, what can seem like, impossible decisions. You have so many inputs that finding clarity on the "right" decision seems arduous, if not impossible at times.

We're continually faced with issues that are both unavoidable and unsolvable. These are called polarities. Attempts to solve these issues by finding the "right answer" or solution to polarities only makes things worse.

The ability to distinguish between problems that have to be solved and polarities that have to be managed is an essential leadership skill — those who can do both always have the advantage.

You're not alone if you struggle with these problems. We're all in the same boat, and it's normal to feel like you're out on an island when faced with decisions that can lead to apathy or doing nothing or acting impulsively without a well thought out plan.

As a leader, it's important to improve your decision making process when faced with tough problems and tough decisions.

First, remember you're dealing with people and business issues. Quite often there are no "right" decisions, there are only the best decision based on the current circumstances. You don't need to find a solution to the problem; you need to effectively manage the problem. That's polarity.

An example of this would be a poor performing employee with a bad attitude during your busy time. It's important to understand that you approach problems from a basic human perspective. Every human being is wired to be comfortable, safe and secure. This is evidenced by three reactions: fight, freeze or flee.

Your most basic human nature kicks in with one of these three natural human reactions. Imagine you're standing on a train track and a loaded freight train is careening down the tracks at 60 miles per hour. Your brain doesn't kick in with probabilities and reasons for the situation. It says, RUN!

When faced with any problem, human nature takes hold and has those three instinctual options — understanding this will help you go into the decision making process with your eyes wide open.

Back to the earlier example of the poor performing employee with a bad attitude as you enter your busiest time. You're fooling yourself if you said your natural reaction would be anything other than freeze. You'd rationalize that you need the person to help run calls or install jobs because you need profits. You're correct in looking at it this way since you do need people to run calls and install jobs if you're to produce a profit.

There's also a fight reaction, but most leaders have advanced beyond the natural impulse to punch someone out as it pertains to us running your businesses.

Now that you better understand basic human decision making and, furthermore, you understand that people naturally want comfort, safety and security, let's start to apply some logic as to how to make the "best" impossible decisions in your businesses.

Make the Best Decision

The first leadership and problem solving fact you come to is this: There are no perfect decisions. There are only the best decisions at the time and the given circumstances. The higher you go in leadership, the murkier or tougher the decisions. And these decisions almost always have more impact on your company.

This is an important fact that you all need to understand. This is where some wise guy you all know says, "That's why you make the big bucks." Regardless of your income, your decision making as leaders takes on more complexity as your responsibility in the organization grows.

You operate and work as leaders in a world where cold hard facts are elusive and gray is the norm. You also live here by design and you have two very opposite poles with which you continually deal.

There's your business, whose role is to produce a profit, and there's your culture, which comprises the environment in which your employees work.

Polarity Management

Let's dive into the business side of the pole. Ray Isaac, president of Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning in Rochester, N.Y., came to my company to do supplemental leadership training with a group of employees we placed in our Leadership Academy this past year.

Ray had done a great job getting my young leaders to open up about the problems and issues with which they had to deal. What we found through this training session was eye opening. We were taking business issues and trying to mix them in with cultural issues while looking for clarity, which is impossible. This becomes extremely murky.

At the end of the session, I asked one simple question, "Why does a business exist?" The answers from these young leaders were enlightening. They ranged from, "To give people jobs" to "Help people out." But they never answered why a business truly exists.

A business truly exists to produce a profit by delivering to customers needed products and services. If a company doesn't produce a profit, it will cease to exist. If it doesn't offer needed products and services, it won't make a profit.

If a company doesn't produce a profit, it can't hire people and give them a job. The fundamental problem in the answers I had received were that they were confusing the by-product of a profitable business with why it existed.

Now that you have a definition of why a company exists, let's dive into culture. Here's a basic fact about culture. You have one, whether it's good, bad or indifferent, your company has a culture. You simply cannot have people interacting in one place without some kind of culture.

You often hear of people talk about having a positive culture, a competitive culture, a fun culture. Whatever the definition, you have some kind of culture in your business. The bottom line to culture is that you'll live and work with it whether it is good, bad or indifferent.

This gets us right into the value and importance of Polarity Management. Your business and profitability is one pole. The business decisions you want and need to implement can make sense all day long, until you inject culture in the decisions.

Culture and business decisions are at opposite poles. Your cultural decisions are vastly different from your business decisions and this is where you need a greater understanding of the dynamics at play in these seemingly conflicting issues.

Business and profitability decisions are much clearer in that you have pricing calculators, labor management tools,

overhead structures, etc. You can build the best theoretical and profitable business plans known to man on a spreadsheet. The numbers all work and the profits are there.

Cost vs. Value

Where it becomes difficult is when you introduce the human element into your perfect plan, and you realize you can't run real human beings off of a spreadsheet.

Reality is quite the opposite. You have to create a culture for your employees so they want to come to work, be a part of your company and perform at a high level. You can see the "cultural expense" as just that, an expense not an asset. For number driven leaders, this is an easy trap to fall into when leading your businesses.

A friend once said to me, "Accountants see the cost of everything but the value of nothing." It's easy to pick on accounting people with this statement, but when you're reviewing financials you do the same thing. You assign cost where instead you should be assigning value.

There are boundaries you have to understand as you assign value to culture. There must be a proportionate profitable return to which you can point back, otherwise, you've created your own little socialist organization.

This is where the two competing poles — Profits and Culture — are imperative. Your need for profits should pull you back close to the center of your cultural decision making just as profitability decision making should have the equal pull for the need of culture.

You need to understand that for your businesses to thrive, both financially and culturally, you have to strike that healthy balance between the poles of profits and culture.

You strive to find the easiest decision that mitigates risk and pain, tough to come by in your roles as leaders. Making decisions between these two poles, by design, isn't easy, nor should it be. You should wrestle when making decisions — other than getting out of the way for a speeding freight train — because you do have two very interdependent poles.

The reality is, you can't have a strong, profitable company without a culture and you can't have culture without a profitable company. The two are inseparable in the end, which is why you need to evaluate both profitability AND culture when making decisions. The task is to manage both of these interdependent poles effectively.

When you take the time to evaluate the company you want, from both profitability and cultural standpoint, you'll have a much clearer idea of how you make decisions and how you manage the polarities that naturally exist in organizations. Highly effective leaders become adept at figuring out if they have problems to solve or polarities to manage.


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