Using Polarity Thinking to Cultivate and Sustain Resilience
February 02, 2021
Susan R. Perry
Flying is considered the safest form of transportation. Mechanical flight is guided by thousands of people sharing an exact language communicated by pilots and aircraft controllers all over the world. Aviation is an incredible example of teamwork in action, and learning how to fly many years ago taught me a few things that I still try to apply to the work I do as an educator.
Teamwork in education operates differently than aviation but is no less important. Interdependent teamwork—a leadership culture or mindset based on the collaboration of otherwise independent groups in schools—happens when resources, expertise, and learning are shared across departments, divisions, and programs. Teams demonstrating curiosity, using appreciative inquiry skills, cultivating and sharing beliefs and practices with an emphasis on inclusive learning are hallmarks of interdependent leadership in action.
As an educational consultant, I help school leaders and teams learn, adopt, and strategically apply interdependent leadership competencies. And one of the biggest things that can get in the way of that work is fatigue and burnout—which, thanks to the incredible ups and downs of the past year, I’ve seen a lot of lately. The reality of the intense fatigue and burnout that independent school leaders are feeling underscores the need for leadership teams to intentionally build the capacity and the capability to sustain these interdependent leadership practices. When they do this well, it can serve as a protective factor against social isolation, fractured teams, and withdrawal.
As I listen skillfully and patiently to parents, students, and colleagues from independent schools, colleges, and universities, I hear them attempting to find the language and behaviors to navigate living in a COVID-19 world. In the past few months, the language of fatigue has been prominent: “I am just tired” and “I can’t say there has ever been a year for which I can recall similar levels of faculty fatigue. We need a break. I think we are all going to hang on until then.” An administrator working to establish effective self-care practices recently said, “I have just noticed how my weekends have not been as restorative as they used to be.”
The fatigue and burnout are real, and many in education are feeling it. And it’s important to separate fatigue from stress. These are different conditions that deserve clarity. Stress is a physiological and/or psychological response to an environmental (internal or external) stimulus. A little stress can help us focus and feel ready for a challenge such as a presentation, performance, or meeting a deadline. Burnout is a state of chronic or ongoing stress and frustration that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. According to the American Psychological Association, burnout in the workplace is often accompanied by harboring or sharing negative feelings about colleagues, feeling dissatisfaction with a professional role, and offering low commitment to an organization’s mission, values, and goals.
People facing burnout tend to isolate themselves, which can have devastating effects on the individuals and their teams. The pandemic is testing our ability to care for each other and ourselves and our ability to sustain interdependent teams. But we cannot lead others unless we care for ourselves.
A Polarity to Manage
It can seem impossible to do both—to adequately care for ourselves and others who we lead—but when we reframe our approach, it becomes more manageable. Polarity thinking can help cultivate sustainable resilience and progress for healthy and psychologically safe educational environments, particularly during this pandemic.
Barry Johnson coined the term polarity thinking (and created the polarity map) to describe situations where there is “truth and wisdom” on more than one side or pole of an issue; each side is incomplete without the other. Not all challenges are problems to solve; rather they are polarities to manage. One of the simplest polarities is inhaling and exhaling. Each pole of the action needs the functioning of the other for breathing to happen.
The polarity I find myself helping people map most lately is, “How is it possible to care for myself and care for my team and school community?” Caring for ourselves has the positive upside of having energy throughout the day, health, and a sense of vigor to serve purposefully. If we overfocus on ourselves to the neglect of our community, our teams might feel lost, abandoned, or without direction and likely will withdraw into silos of discontent. If we overfocus on community at the neglect of our own needs, we experience exhaustion, illness, distress, and potentially burnout. It is predictable. Neither are sustainable solutions because caring for self and caring for the community is not a “problem to solve” to begin with.
The polarity of caring for self and caring for community inherently has a natural flow. These two poles are never separate entities operating separately from one another anymore than inhaling and exhaling can operate independently from one another during normal respiration. In education, our highest aspirations of creating thriving learning relationships happens when we leverage the upside of caring for ourselves with caring for our communities.
With compassion, patience, and through affirming the polarities inherent in our relationships with our colleagues and students, polarity thinking can be a valuable tool and an asset to the incredible examples of interdependent teamwork that resonate so deeply in our work in education.
Leaders and teams that can commit to finding, developing, and sharing interpersonal skills and behaviors that reflect self-care, a sense of calm, and listening to understand over seeking power and control will be better positioned to thrive in a world that is constantly changing. We will get through this. As it is said in aviation, keep an eye on the horizon and keep the wings level to ultimately soar.
Susan R. Perry
Susan R. Perry is an independent consultant who inspires leaders, teams, and learning organizations in the alignment of educational excellence, health, and community well-being one inclusive learning relationship at a time. She is founder of SRP Leadership Matters in Education Consulting, LLC.