Polarity: Do we have to choose?

Su-Ling Ng | International

In leading strategy implementation in OM, I frequently face questions to answer or problems to help solve. On some occasions, however, I am truly stumped, or questions once answered resurface in different circles such as “What does it mean for OM to be a field-led movement?," “How do we manage dual accountability?," and “Do we value people or tasks?”

Recently, I attended organisational development training by Christian professionals where they explained the concept of polarity management. This was an “Aha!” moment for me. These same questions keep popping up not because we have not developed satisfactory answers, but because there is no one clear answer to begin with. These are not questions to be answered, nor problems to be solved—they are tensions to be managed.

Polarities, as first defined by organisational psychologist Barry Johnson in 1975, refer to interdependent pairs that need each other over time. They are not mutually exclusive, and always at tension with each other. No amount of problem solving will resolve that tension.

Examples of natural polarities in life include inhaling–exhaling, activity–rest, and work–home. In our spiritual lives, we experience polarities such as life–death, weakness–power and working–waiting. Jesus’ teachings and stories were full of paradoxes (or polarities) that brought out the tension between first and last, present and future, greatness and humility, sacrifice and reward.

It’s simple to notice many polarities in our daily OM work such as:

• Global Centre and Field Operations

• Freedom and Accountability

• Centralised and Decentralised

• Structure and Emergent

• Team and Individual

• Diversity and Sameness

• Task and Relationship

At best, a polarity pairing reflects two realities that are good and desired. Let’s consider freedom and accountability. On one hand, we want freedom for fields to act as they deem best, allowing leaders to be responsive to ministry needs that change and emerge. This also yields greater ownership of the ministry by leaders. On the flip side, accountability ensures that leaders use resources and manage ministries responsibly.

One coin, two sides

To function effectively, we need BOTH freedom and accountability, learning to manage the tension to stay on the upside of the poles where gains can be reaped. In the example above, the upside is when OM leaders feel empowered to lead in their areas of responsibilities, but also understand and appreciate the support that comes with good accountability.

Problems arise when tension between the two poles is not well managed, leading the organisation to live on the downside of the poles through too much freedom or accountability or even both. Warning signs that the organisation is living on the downside of the poles would be when leaders are overly protective of geographical/ministry ‘turf’ (too much freedom), or micro-management by the global centre (too much accountability).

The polarity concept affirms that achieving both sides of the poles is quite possible. It’s not either/or, nor one versus the other (as in a zero-sum game), but rather both/and. Grasping this concept could enable more constructive conversations about dilemmas we face as leaders. Rather than forcing ourselves to have to choose between task or people, or freedom or accountability, a helpful dialogue would centre on how to achieve the best of both without slipping into the downsides.

People may value or hold on to the upside of one pole, or be fearful of the downside of the opposite pole. These are very natural tendencies that, unfortunately, can result in the organisation, or a particular group, becoming stuck on one end of the pole. As leaders, we can help facilitate conversations that:

• Affirm the value of the pole where there is bias

• Acknowledge the real fears of the downside of the other pole

• Explore benefits to the other pole

• Seek the higher purpose supported by both poles.

This last point is important. Ultimately, both ends of the pole should work towards the same higher purpose. In the case of freedom-accountability polarity, that is effective ministry.

Change is the new constant we must embrace as part of our future reality. To manage ongoing, ever-emerging change effectively requires us all to manage polarities well.

For further reading: https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/are-you-facing-a-problem-or-a-polarity/

Su-Ling Ng began with OM in 2001 with her husband, Han Teck, on Doulos. They spent nine years with OM Ships, and were part of the first leadership team of Logos Hope. Currently Su-Ling is the Associate International Director of Strategy Implementation, leading the implementation of OM’s global change initiatives. These include strategic developments arising from our new mission statement, as well as changes to our governance and leadership structures.

Published: Tuesday, 03 October 2017
Credit: Su-Ling Ng
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