Breaking the Meeting Deadlock

By Dan Brown

Let me pose two, silly-serious questions:

Can you inhale only? Let’s find out. Empty your lungs completely and then draw in a big, rib-expanding breath. Now hold your breath long enough for your heart to pound as the carbon dioxide builds up.

It’s confirmed: you cannot inhale only.

But, can you exhale only? Of course not. Get serious.

  1. I will. When it comes to decision-making many leaders habitually and tragically choose either to inhale or exhale. The condition is so chronic, pervasive and dangerous it has a name. Jim Collins aptly termed it, “The Tyranny of the OR.” The healthy alternative has a name, too. “The Genius of the AND.”

Why is it, however, when a perfectly good alternative exists, the tyranny continues to suffocate so many leaders and their organizations? How can you tap into the life-giving genius? Let’s find out, courtesy of one of my long-time coaching clients.

She’s the Chief Strategy Officer of a 15-year-old consulting firm in my town, Washington, D.C. Recently Keshia* asked me to attend her firm’s monthly, executive-team meeting. She requested I watch her in action and provide observations afterward about her leadership behavior. Her team was cool with it as long as I remained quiet, in the background.

The CEO convened the 8:30 meeting and bang, the first debate brews up, like an unexpected summer storm. At issue was whether to centralize or decentralize marketing and business development. The Inhale-Only’s argued to take it out of the hands of the industry-sector units and create a centralized, shared service. “We need consistent processes to leverage economies of scale.” Arguing right back, the Exhale-Only’s shouted for nimble, entrepreneurship. “Our growth will stall unless marketing and biz-dev remain decentralized, kept in the hands of those closest to our different markets.”

We’re right! huffed the Exhalers.

No, we’re right! gasped the Inhalers.

Keshia hadn’t said a word so far. She appeared uneasy, but contemplative. I was curious about when and if she would join in…and how.

The debate morphed into a 15-minute skirmish between Inhalers who wanted to talk tactics and Exhalers who wanted to talk strategy. That petered out and then on to the next agenda item: “Employee violations of company telework rules.” The room divided into those for justice and those for mercy and then the frazzled CEO called a break. When the meeting resumed, centralization/decentralization was back on the table. An hour had ticked by without any decisions.

Keshia sent me a worried look of what should I do? I pointed at my gut, a signal for her to trust hers. She returned my signal with a look of composure and confidence. She was poised to make her move.

But let’s pause here for a moment. On which side would you have been in this meeting? Centralize or Decentralize? Tactics or Strategy? Justice or Mercy for policy violators?

Would you ever answer both? If so, then it could mean, according to psychologists who research stages of adult development, you belong to the 6%-8% of leaders solidly capable of paradoxical, or ambidextrous, thinking. Keshia profiled at this stage when she took a test I administered that measures leadership maturity.

In our private coaching sessions, she frequently expressed concern, and for good reason, about her colleagues’ inability to distinguish between dilemmas and problems.

History is replete with catastrophes resulting from this. Kodak is a prime example. It had actually developed technology for the digital camera, but sat on it out of fear of cannibalizing Kodak’s core film business. Company leaders faced the classic conundrum of having to exploit existing assets and opportunities in a profitable way AND to explore new technologies and markets. Instead of doing both simultaneously Kodak presented itself with a false, either-or choice. It chose exploitation only. And paid the ultimate price.

Instead of paying the price, what could you do differently in your organization?

As a coach, I spend a good bit of time with clients in government, non-profits and commercial business working to identify and leverage the polarities at work throughout their organizations.

Think of a polarity as a pair of virtuous opposites, like Yin and Yang, light and dark. One cannot exist without the other; they are interconnected, inhaling and exhaling together in dynamic equilibrium. Here, for you as a checklist, are a list of 12 polarities that consistently show up in my client work. Have you identified any of them in your organization? How well are you managing those you’ve spotted?

  1. Centralization & Decentralization
  2. Visionary & Keeping Your Feet on the Ground
  3. Going for Consensus & Being Directive
  4. Establishing Structure & Allowing Flexibility
  5. Certainty & Doubt
  6. Visibly Leading the Way & Receding Into the Background
  7. Managing Close & Managing at a Distance
  8. Stability & Change
  9. Action & Reflection
  10. My Division’s Interest & The Interest of the Whole Organization
  11. Candor & Diplomacy
  12. Transparency & Discretion.

Looking at this list, you might have already made the important step of recognizing you tilt to one side or another. So, what would it take for you to incorporate the contradictory value into your leadership and become way more agile on a daily basis?

Overturning your implicit assumptions that something dreadful will happen is a key part of the developmental project, it turns out. If you overdo transparency, for example, (which means you could be paying the price it), then what is it about discretion that alarms you? In coaching, I use what’s called The Polarity Mapping Tool, invented by organizational consultant Dr. Barry Johnson, to investigate those fears and support clients in experimenting with their non-preferred way of being. This cultivates an ambidextrous mindset.

How about your corporate culture? Here, too, polarities are at play. Frequently I’m asked to use the Polarity Mapping Tool as part of a gallery-walk exercise with senior teams to test whether their organization is being paralyzed by a one-sided core belief system. At a non-profit client, leaders I serve have become alert to how promoting mission and altruism to the exclusion of margin and self-interest is hurting their organization. They are now leading differently.

Genius of the AND is not about compromise — 50% salt; 50% pepper — or about hanging out in post-modern relativism. Polarity-management is an active, highly conscious, on-going discipline of identification and synthesis of opposites, where leaders revisit and recalibrate the proportional weights given each pole. It calls for a different kind of conversation: dialogue, which elicits multiple perspectives, rather than debate, which kills them off until one is left standing supreme.

Keshia did intervene that day in the conference room. After she called everybody’s attention to the deadlock, she spontaneously facilitated a dialogue that concluded with the firm deciding to keep some activities of marketing and business development on the front line AND to move others into the central office. A happy conclusion.

Nobody needs to faint; as long as we keep breathing, nobody will. By the way, Silly & Serious is, guess what? A polarity!

To learn about how to use the Polarity Mapping Tool to cultivate ambidextrous thinking within your leadership team, contact Dan Brown….


*To protect the client’s identity, her name and the details of this story have been changed.