Do you seesaw back and forth, trying to manage polarities in your life and find the right balance?
There are a lot of seesaws you can get caught on:
Overcommitted — Bored
Trust too easily — Distrustful
Being agreeable — Blowing up
Overeating — Dieting
When the seesaw tips, our natural tendency is to try to rebalance. And often that is the best thing to do. Barry Johnson uses the metaphor of breathing to help explain how we naturally manage polarities. We breathe oxygen in and CO2 out. Without this natural rebalancing, we could not exist. Polarity management is about seeing the polarities, recognizing warning signs that you’re getting into the downside, and moving toward the upside of the opposite pole. This is an excellent way of rebalancing before you get too out of balance and a helpful way to solve complex problems.
But Sometimes Rebalancing Is Not the Best Solution
Trying to manage polarities is not always the best solution. Sometimes neither of the choices are good ones. Sometimes there’s a different choice you never considered.
Take the work hard/ play hard seesaw for example. On this seesaw, you work harder and harder until you start to burn out. You take time off, perhaps a great vacation, to get reenergized. It’s hard to totally relax because you know what’s building up and waiting for you while you’re away. You return and jump back into the fray and immediately start to burn out again. That’s a tough way to live, which we often learn the hard way by getting sick.
Or consider the over-/ under-management seesaw where a leader delegates responsibility but swoops back in periodically giving direction, and then disappears again – a confusing and demoralizing seesaw for their team and an ineffective management style.
The problem with being on a seesaw is it’s not possible to stay exactly in the middle. You are always off balance. And you can throw other people off balance too.
An Alternative Is to Step Off the Seesaw
You don’t have to do the opposite of what you were doing to rebalance. You don’t have to go back and forth between the two ends of a seesaw.
Sometimes, you can simply step off the seesaw.
For example, in the case of the over-/ under-management seesaw, you can get off the seesaw by redefining your role as a manager. Instead of seeing your role as an overseer, you redefine it as a servant. As a servant leader, your job is to help them develop the skills they need, ensure access to the resources they need, provide the information they need, and to be available when they need your help or advice.
In the case of the work hard/ play hard seesaw, you can rethink the work you are doing and find a way to do work you enjoy so much it feels like play much of the time. It might require making a big life choice such as a career change, more education, moving, or letting go of security. To make a big shift like this, it helps to be guided by a compelling vision.
3 Tips to Help You Step Off the Seesaw
Recognize you’re on a seesaw.
It’s not so easy to get off a seesaw because we often don’t even recognize we’re on one. And when we do, we assume it’s the way of life and there are no other options. So the first step is to simply recognize your situation – that you are on a seesaw that is not serving you.
Stop the seesaw.
When off balance, our natural inclination is to do the opposite of what you were doing. But this reaction, as logical as it seems, keeps you on the seesaw. It can feel uncomfortable to simply stop what you are doing without taking any other action. This tension is natural and important. It’s called creative tension because it is the creative force that will help you move to a new possibility.
See more than the seesaw.
Take time for reflection. Find the bigger picture that includes more than the seesaw. Consider these questions:
- How exactly does this seesaw work? What do I do at each end? What prompts me to move toward the other end?
- How does this seesaw affect my ability to do my work?
- How does it affect me personally?
- How does it affect others?
- What role does this seesaw play?
- What benefits do I get from this seesaw?
- Is there a bigger purpose that this seesaw serves?
- Is it possible to accomplish both ends of the seesaw at the same time?
- Is there something that is more important than either end of the seesaw?
- What might it look like if I weren’t on this seesaw?
The answers to these questions can lead you to a shift in your philosophy, how you see your role and your options and choices.
I appreciate your point that when leaders are off balance, they throw their team off balance too. Good suggestion for leaders to consider the bigger picture and what their role as a leader really is. Thanks for another thought-provoking and helpful post.
Thanks James. I think leaders limit their options when they define their role as either “management” or “leadership.” Instead of from shifting from “either/or” to “both/and” thinking, still seeing choices within a two-dimensional perspective, sometimes resolution and freedom come from seeing a bigger picture that allows you to shift your perspective (and choices) entirely.
The idea of stepping out of whatever seesaw paradigm we are in and looking for alternative perspectives is wisdom very simply defined, it seems to me. Well said, Jesse.
An excellent summary of the main point of this post. Thanks Marye Gail.
I like the analogy of the see-saw Jesse. Though quite familiar with polarities it’s the first time I’ve thought about it through this lens — a key benefit of being able to see polarities in the world! Thank you for another insightful post.
So glad to hear that Jake. I have great respect for polarity management, but as you point out, there’s another lens.
Thank you for another insightful post, love the see saw metaphor, it’s powerful and captures the challenge so very well.
Your point about either /or, both/and has resonance too
Clients of mine who have learnt to focus on achieving harmony as against balance tend to feel more empowered and confident, the former being a fluid state of ups and downs while the latter is an unrealistic and constant state of equilibrium.
By being mindful about their thought patterns and behaviors leaders can avoid falling into the see saw trap.
Well said. It requires a shift in mindset to view the situation from a larger perspective as a fluid state, rather than attempting to “manage” it. Interestingly, Barry Johnson has recently changed the name of his model from “polarity management” to “polarity thinking” which I suspect is in part due to this understanding.
I love this Jesse
I’m often struck by how frequently people see things as either/or… this or that.
You propose looking for a third way, which I think is where the vertical learning happens, and where leadership magic occurs!
All of which requires mindfulness and deliberate choices!
Thanks for doing what you do!
Interesting observation about vertical learning, Rebecca. Whenever we step out of our beliefs, which are often unconsciously reinforced through confirmation bias, we see that the limitations we were operating with are simply assumed constraints. Appreciate your deepening this conversation!