Managing Polarities: How do you balance efficiency with engaging and hearing from everybody?

Photo credit:  Polarity Management, Barry Johnson

I was delighted to present a workshop on Polarity Management to the New England Alumni of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

Polarities are “interdependent pairs that need each other to achieve a higher purpose or outcome that neither can reach alone.”  (Barry Johnson)  For example,  activity and rest;  balancing work and home/life;  balancing tradition and innovation in an organization.  We need both activity and rest in our lives;  when we are over-active and neglect taking time to rest, we become exhausted.  So we rest, meditate, recharge our batteries, which enables us to resume being active.   Likewise, I’m sure you’re familiar with the work and home/life polarity.  Once you understand what a polarity is, you find them all over the place – at work, at home, and even within yourself, as in work-life balance.

The HKS participants decided to work on “Efficiency and Inclusion”.  Some people, some teams and some organizations, are focused on getting the work done (being efficient), and don’t take the time to engage everybody, or to hear from everyone – which alienates some people or leads to burnout.  On the other hand, there are people, teams and organizations who are focused on including everyone, for example, in decision making, which makes for long, difficult meetings, where decisions are not made or the goals aren’t accomplished.

This is an obvious polarity, where people are pulled to different sides.  The fact is that we need both poles:  we need to be efficient and get work done; we also need to have people feel included, and have their voices heard.  We need to find a way to address the needs of both sides.  This polarity requires people to discuss, “What practices do we need to put in place in order for this polarity to be well-managed?”

As with any polarity, people need to identify the greater purpose that will be served by leveraging the polarity.  In this case, that would be “creating sustainable productivity”.  Here are some examples of action steps that will help the organization better manage this polarity:


  • Clarify the decision making process;
  • if the organization. thinks they’re using consensus, define what they mean by that;
  • create a timed agenda and keep to the times;
  • take a training on meeting facilitation;
  • use a neutral/external facilitator;
  • have a discussion about what is meant by inclusion and democracy;
  • clarify who needs to be present in different types of meetings.


  • Include time to build relationship and trust in the team or organization.
  • have a discussion about different work styles and how to leverage them to the benefit of the team;
  • talk about how efficiency may block out creativity and innovation,
  • talk about how that serves, or doesn’t serve, the organization.

The workshop participants got some insight about how to help their teams and boards manage the tension between these poles.  They’re going to introduce the model to their colleagues.

What polarities are you experiencing in your team or organization?   What would it take for you to introduce this model to your team?  Good luck!


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