Research & Thought Leadership

Transcending Polarities: Takeaways from Global Summit 2024

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Polarities exist in every business. How do we create growth and profit? How can we do more with less? Is it possible to balance tradition with innovation? Polarities are nothing new, but tensions become heightened during times of change. In a BANI world (brittle, anxious, non-linear and incomprehensible) you can’t prepare for every scenario.  

This is why ‘Transcending Polarities’ was the central theme of the 2024 Global Summit – the annual conference hosted by Hult EF Corporate Education – which brings together HR and L&D professionals from around the world to share knowledge and learn from each other.  

Here are some of the key takeaways. 

Start on the outside

How much does your organization’s outward messaging match up with the internal reality? Mismatches can be particularly noticeable when it comes to sustainability efforts, which gives rise to the term greenwashing – when organizations have a glossy outward image that contradicts the picture on the inside.  

Companies often come at the issue from the inside out, by expressing immeasurable intentions or unsubstantiated claims to the market. Instead, it makes more sense to start from the outside in, say Dr Alexandra Stubbings, Adjunct Faculty Member and Research Fellow, and Matt Gitsham, Professor of Business and Sustainable Development of Hult International Business School. This means gathering feedback from external stakeholders to understand market perception and incentivize internal change.   

The Talik model shows this in more detail: 

infinity symbol showing how engaging, enacting, encoding and expressing creates evolution

Quality communication matters on every level

When dealing with complex polarities, we need to hear multiple perspectives to find holistic solutions. This is often hindered by the ‘groupthink’ phenomenon, whereby people reach the same conclusion without engaging in critical thought. Sharon Olivier, Professor of Practice in Leadership at Hult International Business School, shared a powerful alternative: generative conversation. It prioritizes learning by moving the dialogue from ‘yes, but’ to ‘yes, and’. Rather than trying to ‘win’ against colleagues, it allows original ideas to take hold. 

We can’t hold these kinds of conversations without psychological safety. “This means creating a culture where people feel free to share without judgment,” says Dr Lee Waller, Professor of Occupational Psychology at Hult International Business School. “Without it, nobody speaks up or challenges each other.” Having a psychologically safe environment means an organization can hear different perspectives, and move away from an oppositional mindset.   

To communicate effectively, language is also a priority for any organization with international operations. In his demonstration of EF’s Hyperclass, Tim Ackroyd, VP of Creative and Design at EF EdTech, highlighted the balance between human and AI interaction in language learning. We recently reported on how AI is impacting language learning – the bottom line is that AI capabilities are supercharging human teachers. 

Help your people manage their inner tensions too

Many in the workforce grapple with personal tensions between their inner critic, their natural talent, and their actual performance. When the balance is off, it can lead to heightened stress levels. “HR leaders need to find the ‘success DNA’ of their people,” says Olivier. “We should fit the job to the person, not the other way round, to get better performance and less burnout.” 

Inner polarities won’t disappear, but resilience is key to managing them. “Resilience is being strongly balanced in your centre,” says Olivier. “This is about knowing who you are – not the ability to bounce back, as if often thought, but the ability to sway and go with the flow.” 

Collectively, this can effect change on an organization level. Polarities arise when people resist change. But in these scenarios, tension can be converted into a ‘growth mindset’ instead, according to Chris Samsa, Adjunct Faculty at Hult International Business School. This is a way of thinking that promotes people’s resilience, lessens fear of failure, and, crucially, increases tolerance for change. Samsa says we can begin to cultivate it with just one word – “I’m not good at this yet.”  

Embrace the contradictions

As the Global Summit drew to a close, Barbara Wang, Professor of Leadership and Management at Hult International Business School, drew on Eastern philosophy to illustrate the concept of servant leadership. It might sound like an oxymoron, but the servant leader ultimately acts to transform their people and provide them with purpose. 

The best leader goes unnoticed… when they achieve something great, everyone owns the endeavor as if it were their idea from the start.’

Lao Tzu

Servant leadership is at odds with the traditional hierarchies we’re used to seeing, but there’s a growing appetite among the workforce for authenticity and humility in leadership far more than confidence (and certainly not egos).  

To effectively serve their people, leaders need to embrace the polarities that exist in the workplace. To illustrate this, Wang highlighted the yin-yang symbol, which traditionally represents integration and interconnectivity – this includes contradiction. ‘Either/or’ thinking imposes inflexible boundaries, whereas we need holistic, ‘both/and’ solutions. 

Organizations can’t have certainty in everything, especially during times of change, but building awareness around polarities means leaders can navigate the ambiguity to be as future-ready as possible. 

Top tips for polarity management in times of change

1. Identify key influencers in your organization. These are the people in your network who will help you get everyone on board.

2. Appoint a change management team that considers how decisions will be received across every region.

3. Make sure your internal and external narratives correspond. If they don’t, start gathering feedback to incite internal change.

4. Involve everyone in change to build solutions from the bottom up.

5. Create a psychologically safe environment where everyone can share ideas without fear of judgment.

6. Develop your people’s resilience to help them manage their inner critic.

7. Cultivate a growth mindset among the workforce with the word ‘yet’.

8. Promote humility and authenticity in leadership.

9. Challenge your perspective on polarities – are you taking an ‘either/or’ approach or is there a ‘both/and’ solution?

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