I had always preferred jobs and tasks that involved managing or leading change and making improvements. I thought my preference toward change was one reason for my success over the years. I typically evaluated and analyzed a situation, designed better solutions, explained a compelling need to change and began making the change happen.
The resistance surprised me, especially given my compelling and clear message regarding the need for change. Sometimes, the clearer I was, the more resistance. Why? Were they stupid or were they not invested in our success as a team/organization?
In my quest to understand why I was encountering such resistance to good ideas and solutions, I was introduced to Dr. Barry Johnson, author of Polarity Management and creator of the Polarity Map, whose “Both/And” mindset challenged my core assumptions about why and how people change. It taught me to listen to and respect the wisdom in people’s resistance.
I learned that polarities, like breathing, aren’t a choice to be made. One breathes in and it leads to breathing out, which again leads to breathing in and so the energy system continues. You can’t choose to only breathe in and no one is stupid enough to argue that they should. But if change is a pole with an interdependent pair with stability, maybe that was what I had been doing. I was arguing that we should breathe in (change) and then surprised by those arguing in favor of breathing out (stability)! I should not have been surprised—I had been the stupid one.
Incremental, predicted, or slow change is much different than transformational, rapid, or cultural change to be sure. But all change is better understood, communicated and achieved when recognized as one pole of an interdependent pair with stability.
Polarities are two interdependent possibilities in tension with one another. Overemphasis on one pole to the exclusion or neglect of the other leads to dysfunction, on both poles, immediately or eventually. If misdiagnosed as an either/or choice, between one pole or the other, polarities manifest themselves as pendulum shifts, back and forth, and result in wasted time and resources, frustration and lower effectiveness.
Our natural biases and tendency toward “either/or” choices manifest themselves powerfully, when people display a preference for either change or stability. The tendency is to over-focus on achieving the things we prefer, i.e. change over stability for me. The response from those who prefer change is predictable. We build strong stories about how change allows us to continue to meet the changing needs of our clients or market, change allows us to organize more effectively, use resources more effectively, be innovative, and use better processes or technologies. These are all good things. Those who prefer this pole also fear that without change, they cannot remain competitive and relevant. These are legitimate fears.
The response from those who prefer stability is also predictable, “But we are good at what we do”, “We have got the processes down and feel comfortable with them,” and “We must deliver consistently to our clients and live our core values.” If you listen deeply to these values, they are all good things as well. “Tradition Bearers” fear that change leads to the loss of values and traditions, forcing them to essentially change their jobs and may make it impossible to keep up, they turn those fears into resistance, and there is wisdom in that resistance! Change without stability will lead to erosion of traditional values and consistency.
My messaging rarely gave the opposing pole’s perspective a place to feel comfortable and a place where their wisdom is respected. Of course, we need to do both. In fact, some changes are necessary to hold on to the stability we seek, and holding some things constant helps make change more effective. Using the polarity mindset to communicate creates a value clarification for all parties.
It helps to develop shared understanding of needing both change and stability. It also removes much of the emotional resistance and fear, by listening to messages that value two opposing views. “Being ready for future challenges requires us to make change consistent with our underlying and continuous commitment to our values,” for example, gives people on each pole of preference a place to stand.
Other easily identifiable, but often misdiagnosed polarities include centralization AND decentralization, efficiency AND quality or safety, tactical AND strategic, and individual AND team.
A simple, not easy, mindset shift from either/or to both/and, provides a deeper understanding of the nature of change, and a new focus on messaging differently, which enables everyone to achieve the higher purpose and desired outcomes of any change initiative.