Saturday, November 11, 2017

Polarity Management: Bouncing Between Busy and Burned Out

My brother Ron introduced me to the concept of polarity management more than two decades ago. He had been introduced to the idea when he was working on his Ph.D. at Temple.

Polarity management is a means for resolving contradictory forces at work in our lives or in situations. There are dozens of examples which confront us on a regular basis. Finding balance between being alone and being social, between doing and delegating at work, between being tough and tender as a parent (lenient or firm).

According to Barry Johnson, author of the book Polarity Management, "Polarities are ongoing, chronic issues that are unavoidable and unsolvable. Attempting to address them with traditional problem solving skills only makes things worse. There is significant competitive advantage for those leaders, teams, or organizations that can distinguish between a problem to solve and a polarity to manage and are effective with both."

When theologian Paul Tillich wrote his autobiography, aptly titled On the Boundary, the chapters were essentially an overview of the various polarities in his life. Theory and practice, reality and imagination, between two temperaments, between rural and city living, etc.

Recently I've been thinking about polarities because of observations I've been making regarding myself and also regarding people in organizations that I've been observing, specifically with regard to busy-ness. There's a certain kind of temperament that feels most satisfied when one is productive, as in busy accomplishing things. But busy-ness for busy-ness sake or the drivenness that sometimes occurs because people can't, or won't, delegate can ultimately become a grind.

I enjoy being busy, and find being productive to be satisfying, internally rewarding. But I've also seen where busy-ness that accomplishes nothing can become very depressing. Ultimately we begin asking ourselves, "Why am I doing this?" and unless we sense some kind of meaning in all this activity, our motivation can be sapped. Responsibilities that once brought satisfaction become obligations that are just another life burden.

In the diagram above the most fulfilling quadrant for me is the upper left where I am energized, engaged, enthused and productive. The danger comes, however, when I fail to take time to re-charge my batteries, my energy is depleted. To regain enthusiasm I move to the upper right quadrant, less busy and re-charging, but it isn't long before I feel a twinge of emptiness when I am not being productive. You only live once, so there is a subtle pressure to return to my projects.

This is one of my cycles. What are yours?

For this reason, it is essential to become self-aware. What are the signs that you have taken on too much? What are the rewards you need to keep going? Is your struggle situational and unresolvable or is it more due to the way you're interpreting things in your head? What are the clues that you're facing impending burnout?

I find it essential to make time for reflection on a regular basis. Otherwise one can start to feel like a squirrel running on one of those wheels in a cage, exhausted and getting nowhere, with no end in sight. What's the point of that?

For more on this topic read Dr. Johnson's Polarity Management.

Here's another good article by Peter Schulte.

The above is just one kind of quandary we can get into. Here are some others I've observed:

People focus vs. self-needs focus.

Pursuit of passion (activity/adrenaline) vs. withdrawal.

Purpose Driven vs. live and let live.

Busy vs. bored.

Helping too much and helping too little.

Some things just aren't cut-and-dried. What works for me may not work for you... we just do the best we can.

Meantime, life goes one. Enjoy the rest of your weekend... if you're not too busy.

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