Boxing Yourself InAugust 8, 2014

One of the most basic constructions of identity is to locate your sense of self in opposition to one side of a polarity. An example in its most basic form: you like being warm and you hate being cold. You are attracted to this, and you are opposed to that.

This may seem to be a trivial stance, however it is anything but trivial.

A polarized way of organizing or structuring yourself is a persistent challenge that stunts leadership effectiveness, limits behavioral flexibility, and chops the amount of freedom you have in half. (And unfortunately for us, none of these limitations are the biggest problem.)

The biggest problem is that these polar constructions of identity (as I call them) happen without you even knowing about it.

Most adults find themselves inside a world of divisions. As oppositions, tensions, conflicts and agendas spring forth, we discover ourselves inside of this world of divisions with our sense of self invested in “our side” of things.

Without any choice in the matter, we engage in battles. Conflicts that shore up smaller and less capable versions of ourselves dictate our professional life. Yet, the truth is: the more you engage this way, the less you accomplish. And the more we do this together, colluding and pretending that compromised aptitudes are adequate, the less our organizations and institutions can effectively serve, innovate and achieve.

Boxing yourself into a more limited identity is not a way to achieve more.

An example: stuck somewhere between success and failure.

One of the perennial tensions that organizations struggle with is the polarity between success and failure.

Which side do you find yourself investing in? Which side is your organization investing in? The answers are obvious, aren’t they?

We predictably organize ourselves around success most of the time. When failures happen, and we are identifying with success, we tend to work hard to get out of these experiences as quickly as possible. For most people this is no problem. After all, boxing ourselves into success is what we’re supposed to be about, right?


What would it be like to welcome both success and failure? What if there was an alternative to playing out the same old pattern of chasing after more success and running from failure as quickly as possible? What if it were possible for you to manage this polarity creatively instead of habitually?

The promise of development is that it becomes possible for you and your organization’s perspectives and practices to be bigger than the opposition to failure.

When our perspectives and identities are larger than polarities, we can peer with curiosity into both sides without collapsing into our habituated preferences. When faced with failure we can lean into—perhaps even welcome—these discordant and uncomfortable experiences as new places to learn. When confronted with apparent success, we can pause with measured suspicion.

Because our identities are not solely invested in this experience, we can connect to larger, more flexible intelligences capable of seeing beneath surface appearances. We become able to mine our successes for the hidden places where success fell short in important ways.

Individuals and organizations who encourage failure tend to be much more creative.

There’s an old saying, “Fail, but fail fast.” This is because innovation thrives when we have the freedom to both succeed and fail. This freedom to be curious about both sides of a polarity is where we learn most effectively.

People and organizations who are bigger than success and failure are more agile. They can take strategic risks, fail miserably, and not blindly run into the known and predictable habits that have worked in the past. When we construct our individual or corporate identities around success (however we may define it), often upon achieving these benchmarks we can become complacent. We become repetitive without much discernment.

If our personal or corporate identities can include the polarity of success and failure, there will be more room available to us for learning and creativity. A larger menu of choices opens up. Within this extra space, broader strategies can influence behavior in more creative ways. Success and failure can both elicit highly nuanced and lively refinements in our work.

In the case of encountering shortcomings and failures, these uncomfortable experiences can fuel greater curiosity, openness and engagement. Instead of collapsing attention and identity back upon yourself, you can stay focused on learning. You don’t automatically, without any choice, become more self-conscious—thereby expending precious resources to managing self-image, social perceptions and other similar distractions. Instead of attempting to get out of these dissonant experiences as soon as possible, you can remain task-oriented instead of self-oriented.

Stabilizing your focus in this way means you can remain curious about what needs to be learned, you can stay open to new sources of information, and you can remain engaged with the problem(s) holding you back. As a result, you enjoy a higher order focus that stays durably on task regardless of the outcome. This enables to you to achieve more—much more.

Polarities are always at play—and there are always at least two choices

First, you can succumb to habit and convention and play out the scripted moves you’ve been conditioned to make your whole life. We can call this the “default” option. If you don’t intend to become larger, your current status quo—or the status quo handed to you by your culture—will set you on autopilot.

The alternative is to develop yourself. As you develop, the polar formations of you become an object and feature of your professional life that you can manage with increasing effectiveness. You get bigger than the polar constructions of you. You become what I call a dialectical self.

As a dialectical self, you can embrace, inhabit and participate with both sides of a polarity and thus you have greater choice. As the diversity of options expands, you’ll likely find yourself facilitating your professional work in dramatically new ways.

You may find you need more experience of your current competencies in order to learn adaptively. Or, you may need to inhabit the polar opposite of what you typically find yourself doing. Instead of listening, speak. Instead of talking, just listen. Where you lead, look for ways to follow. Where you tend to allow others to lead, bolster your command and take the reigns.

Tools to Develop Greater Options: Dialectical Reflection

Begin by investigating a prior experience that has happened to you recently. This may be a scenario between you and a co-worker two weeks ago, a tension between you and your boss that challenged you last week, or it might be an experience you had with your child yesterday. Regardless, choose an experience that holds a charge (positive or negative) and one that you want to learn more from.

1) Replay
Go back in the scenario in your mind’s eye and replay the most important part or parts. Use all of your senses to reconstruct the experience for yourself. The more facets of your experience you bring in, the richer the results will be. Include all five senses. What did you see? What did you hear? Next, replay how you felt inside of your body. How did the inside of the relationship(s) feel? What was going on in your mind?

2) Distill
After replaying the most important facets of your prior experience, quickly review the most notable, charged and/or interesting parts of your experience. These are the central themes from your experience. Choose one to three of these, and distill them down to one-or-two word phrases. For example, if you were replaying a conflict with a co-worker you might note that the tension, frustration and anxiety could all be captured with the term “conflict.”

3) Flip
Taking the distilled facet(s) of your experience, flip it (or them) 180 degrees. Ask yourself, “What is the opposite?” For example, when flipping 180 degrees from “conflict,” you might start to see “harmony,” “creativity,” “relaxation” and/or “comfort.” Choose the most salient, activating and engaging word or words, again focusing on one or two words to use as your polar label. In this example, we’ll imagine you chose “creativity,” which gives you the polarity to carry forward in the fourth and final step.

4) Reflect
Finally, now that you have identified at least one charged polarity to work with, it is important for you to spend time with this polarity. In this example, the two sides of the polarity were “conflict” and “creativity.” Reflect on the dynamics between the two polar opposing positions you’ve distilled. Ask yourself, “What are my relationships to this polarity?” Pay attention to the insights that emerge and continue to notice how this polarity appears in your day-to-day life.

Rob McNamara
Harvard University Teaching Fellow, Leadership Coach, Author of The Elegant Self
Ten Directions, Integral Facilitator Faculty


carol peterson

Thanks very much for a timely reminder of where the nuggets of gold are. I am reminded that todays success is often tomorrows failure in an organisation. HOW we absorb and integrate both and the functions experiences and the people involved is a mark of not only our growth but our humanity.

Rob McNamara

You are most welcome Carol, thank you kindly for your reflections. I think you’re spot on here, it’s how we integrate both dimensions of organizational experience that is critical. And humanity’s success as a species depends upon these kinds of capabilities.

Peter Jorgensen

Thank you for a wonderful post. I used an example from the other day when my beloved son (age three) suddenly rejected me and I got quite sad and felt unloved. Playing with the other polarity gave some sense of space and freedom around it. I am quite inspired to work with polarity after reading your post.
Kind wishes from Peter in Copenhagen

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