Transcending a polarities mindset

One unifying approach to sustain well-being and performance.

Transcending a polarities mindset

One unifying approach to sustain well-being and performance.

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In any successful business change, HR leaders are uniquely positioned to play a leading role. Whether it’s the introduction of new senior leadership or a major digital overhaul, change requires the adaptability, and ultimately the backing, of an organization’s people to be a success. This puts HR on the frontline of the tensions that emerge: juggling employee expectations with business needs, cultivating a sense of stability to the backdrop of ambiguity, and looking for clever ways to accommodate a multitude of different – often opposing – viewpoints. They are, in this sense, the ‘polarity managers’ of the business.  

Polarity management has long been a hot topic in the business world. Leaders run the risk of taking an either/or approach, prioritizing one business area in favor of another. This rigid way of thinking is when tension arises. But is it a peculiarly Western mindset? “In Western philosophy black and white represents split and contradiction, but in East Asia it’s harmony,” says Barbara Wang, Professor of Leadership and Management at Hult International Business School, specializing in cross-cultural leadership. East Asian society is underpinned by the teachings of ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, who codified the concepts of yin and yang – opposing energies interlocking in a harmonious whole. In the business world, this translates into greater ease in finding balance within competing forces and taking a long-term view. 

With this in mind, should we not accept many of the perceived polarities as natural and necessary tensions in a business, and look to find solutions out of the seeming contradictions?  

Here, we explore how HR leaders can manage one of the most critical balancing acts (i.e. polarities) in any business: protecting people’s well-being while maintaining their peak performance in a sustainable way. We discuss how your company values can function as a stabilizing compass to prove that caring for people’s well-being doesn’t mean compromising on performance.  

Key insights

HR leaders have a key role to play from their unique vantage point during any major business change and can be instrumental in managing tensions that arise from polarities. 

An “either/or” mindset amplifies tension between polarities in the organization  – e.g. well-being and performance. This tension is eased when businesses identify solutions that take value from competing sources.  

Balancing employee care with individual accountability is paramount. Organizations and employees must co-own people’s well-being.  

Value-led sustainability: A lens to reframe polarities

‘Value-led sustainability’ is one way that can provide alternative angles to allow us to look at apparent polarities differently. “This is an approach that’s designed to protect and create new sources of value for the business and its people,” explains Matt Gitsham, Professor of Business and Sustainable Development at Hult International Business School. “And it puts sustainability at the heart of business strategy.” When we talk about sustainability, we are referring to it in its broadest sense as defined by the UN, which sees sustainability as a social goal for people to co-exist over a long time.  

Dr Alexandra Stubbings, Adjunct faculty and Research Fellow at Hult International Business School, specializes in sustainable culture. While acknowledging that growth and return on investment are inevitably the key drivers behind business decisions, she says that “excessive focus on short-term profit means important factors can get overlooked, like long-term resilience and employee well-being.” 

In this way, the ethos at the core of value-led sustainability ties in with work that Hult EF Corporate Education is doing with leaders on culture, where a broader view is taken as to who and what organizations care about. “Leaders of sustainable cultures balance extrinsic values like status and financial reward, which drive individual action, with intrinsic values like community and empathy, which encourage collaboration,” says Stubbings. “Creating this expanded sense of caring – within teams, for society, for nature – not only improves business performance but also increases employee engagement and reduces stress.”

An antidote for “toxic busyness”

Well-being is a core topic in the sustainability conversation (it’s actually number three of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – good health and well-being). Without sufficient protection and promotion of well-being, businesses are much more at risk of employee burnout. This is a psychological syndrome resulting in people feeling overwhelmed,  exhausted, ineffective, and detached from their jobs to the extent that they can no longer function effectively at work. It reached an all-time high during and after the pandemic.  

There’s a big difference between healthy pressure that leads to optimal performance and too much pressure that results in stress, burnout, and even depression,” says Sharon Olivier, Professor of Practice in Leadership at Hult International Business School. “With healthy pressure, you’re stretched but feeling excited and competent. But when the pressure goes further and you are not well resourced, you move into a hyper-reactive state, where you touch many tasks but can’t give them proper energy and focus. We call that ‘toxic busyness.’” 

To successfully sustain high performance, caring about employees is non-negotiable. “We see burnout more often in organizations where ‘care’ is not a leading value,” says Naysan Firoozmand, Global Head of Coaching at Hult EF. “When organizations live the value of care, resilience tends to be higher and burnouts lower.”  

Communication is also key to circumnavigating this, along with creating a learning culture, according to Olivier. “There needs to be an ongoing, open conversation and joint learning about performance and burnout, to raise awareness and build resiliency practices both at an individual and team level,” she says. “Leaders must take responsibility for ensuring the right balance is struck, as well as modeling optimal behavior themselves.” In the best cases, those who have experienced burnout talk openly about it and what they feel they could have done to avoid it. It’s a big cultural shift that HR leaders are well-positioned to support. 

There’s a tendency for organizations to see burnout as the employee’s problem,” explains Olivier. “They put pressure on employees to be more resilient, providing wellness days and courses, but no more. We believe organizations must co-own the problem of burnout with their people. It’s a two-way street.”  

It’s worth noting here that the focus on burnout can be a challenge for local HR leaders in the East, where it isn’t always discussed as openly. “I see HR managers based in China who are torn apart because they’re told by their global HQ that they need to focus on well-being, but they can’t see how to do that within their local context,” says Wang. “It’s very important that global HR leaders take account of cultural differences – such as differences related to perceptions of pressure – and consult on what will work best in each market.” 

Caring for employees doesn’t mean avoiding tough conversations

When company culture puts an emphasis on care, there is the risk of another perceived polarity arising, as Firoozmand elaborates: “On the flip side, I have seen the focus on care almost preventing managers from having difficult conversations because, in order to be a caring manager, you couldn't then sit down and have a robust conversation to improve performance. I’ve seen the company culture emphasize care to the extent that performance conversations were avoided.”   

He says managers must still feel empowered to do this. “There needs to be a feedback cycle where there are open, robust, good-quality conversations around doing things differently.” In fact, if done correctly, difficult conversations can lead to greater well-being and stronger performance. “At a cultural level, it must be recognized and appreciated that care and accountability can co-exist and must be role modeled from the top all the way through.”  

It’s also incumbent upon individuals to take responsibility for developing what Hult EF calls resilient attitudes. “We have developed a Resiliency diagnostic (ARQ) where leaders on our programs gain insight into six key attitudes impacting their resilience, and we then support them in addressing and developing these more proactively in their lives,” Olivier explains. 

Six key resilient attitudes we can all develop

  • Emotional control

  • Self-belief

  • Purpose

  • Adapting to change

  • Balancing alternatives

  • Awareness of others

How can organizations make improvements in this area? “If there are toxic behaviors or practices, the place to start is by undertaking some form of diagnostic to confirm or contradict assumptions, which then allows a solution to be developed,” says Firoozmand. “If there’s a cultural element, you look at how the organization can reimagine its future cultural paradigm. What language and symbols are used that reinforce the negative, and how do they want it to be for the future? If it’s from a specific leadership perspective, you explore the norms around the behavior of that leadership group – this might involve coaching to help them understand, explore, and reframe. If it’s more of a systemic issue, there are HR or L&D practices that need to be revisited and refined, to ensure metrics don’t reinforce the wrong types of behaviors.”

“Either/or” thinking amplifies tension in the organization – you need a “both/and” mindset

Businesses are having to deal with complex and competing trade-offs within their markets and across the broader ecosystems within which they operate. But rather than seeing forces as opposing each other, they should be treated as different elements to be addressed by holistic solutions. Successful polarity management ultimately requires leaders to carve out solutions that take value from opposing forces and viewpoints. 

Value-led sustainability is essential in achieving this. Putting sustainability at the heart of the business strategy and taking the long-term view creates new sources of value for the business and its people. All stakeholders need to be aligned on their goals. As a priority, employee care has to be balanced with individual accountability to keep performance levels at their best.  

If HR leaders and the people they empower can drive all this, they can achieve a positive difference. It’s what being a change-maker is all about. 


What HR and L&D leaders can do to sustain well-being and performance:

1. Get a clear understanding of where the challenges lie within your organization – cultural, systemic, leadership, individual – and put in place initiatives to tackle these challenges

2. Work to influence your organizational culture to shift beliefs about polarities and move away from an oppositional mindset

3. Review your performance management and rewards systems – are they driving the right behaviors?

4. Lead in a way that is culturally sensitive to the different beliefs and norms that exist across the globe

5. Ensure recruitment policies result in a critical mass of desired behaviors

6. Keep teams involved in setting objectives – “we see a greater sense of ownership and energy when this happens,” says Olivier.

Watch our webinar on-demand

As we continue to explore the unique role of HR in managing seeming polarities within their organizations, this on-demand webinar looks at how businesses can establish the right balance between focus and curiosity. 

This 60-minute on-demand webinar brings together a panel of experts to dive deep and explores the question: "Is it possible to explore your curiosity and stay focused on the job?"

Watch on-demand

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