Betty-Ann's Both Sides Blog

Holding Two Opposing Thoughts for Increased Effectiveness

Have you ever been tickled and while squealing with delight you begged for it to stop? While you may not have realized it at the time, you were holding two conflicting thoughts at once, which is an evolved way of thinking. In spite of the fact that it’s much easier to be polarized, increasingly we are being called to expand our minds and balance two opposing positions together. It is not an ‘either/or’ world and this ability will increase our effectiveness both at work and at home.

Today I love binge-watching TV shows with dualistic protagonists, but it was very different growing up- there were either heroes or villains. People were either good or bad and it was blatantly obvious who wore the black hat and who wore the white. Things are a little more challenging now. It started with the Sopranos, then it was Nurse Jackie and now it is the Americans. With each show I am getting more comfortable that polar opposites can exist together as part of the whole.

Tony Soprano had such tender concern for the mother duck and her ducklings in his swimming pool, yet he eviscerated his best friend when crossed. Nurse Jackie was a kind and compassionate health care worker yet she was drug addicted and flushed the ear of a suspected rapist down the toilet. In The Americans we find Soviet spies dedicated to the communist cause they believe to be good but to uphold it they have to engage in acts that often violently destroy the lives of innocent individuals.

These shows reflect back to us the complexities of our daily lives. As leaders, we are called to access a wide variety of attributes to be successful in our jobs and often they are very polar opposites. We must accommodate a difficult adversary to keep talks moving, all the while asserting our position to be sure that we are being fairly represented. Then we must reflect on setting up the proper processes while taking action to achieve our goals. Throughout all this we must deliver good short-term results without harming the long-term position of our company while being cognizant of the value of stability and open to change.

I worked for a boss that had a brilliant and inspiring strategic vision but was a disappointment in the way he wanted the company to pay for his fun. Part of my ‘growing up’ was accepting this mix in him the same way I accepted the duality in Tony Soprano and Nurse Jackie.

In our personal lives we face this as well. As women we want to be supportive of others while also being viewed as independent and self-sufficient leaders. As men we want to display the stiff upper lip we were conditioned to believe defined us as masculine, yet we want to feel close to those we love by ‘feeling their feelings’. We seek leisure activities that are exciting but safe and investments that provide a good bottom-line return while being ethical and socially responsible.

Managing these polar opposite thoughts is needed in our increasingly multifarious world, but it can be a mind-bender. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. How do we get there? We can be inspired by the small children who held two thoughts at once during a 1960’s Stanford research project…

In this study nursery school children were brought into a room and a marshmallow was placed in front of them. They were then told that they were going to be left alone with the marshmallow for 15 minutes. If they kept from eating the marshmallow, they would get a second one but if they ate the marshmallow, there would be no more available to them. As you can imagine the children struggled with this and some were successful. Years later the researchers followed up with the children and found that those who did not eat the marshmallow got better grades, had higher SAT scores and fewer health issues. As pointed out on a ‘Good Men Project’ podcast, those children were able to hold two opposing ideas at the same time: “I want to eat the marshmallow now” and “I want to eat more marshmallows later.”

If small children can manage this so can we and it will make us better leaders. Roger Martin, one of the world’s leading management thinkers says that leaders who are open to holding two opposing thoughts at once have an ability to resolve the conflict between the two by generating an entirely new idea which is superior to both. He cites the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts founder Isadore Sharp as an example. Instead of making an either/or decision on hotel design and choosing between a small intimate boutique hotel with limited amenities or a large impersonal convention hotel with lots of facilities he devised a new and unique property model. His created a medium-sized luxury hotel with intimate service and all the amenities that has become the most successful luxury hotel chain in the world.

One of the biggest dualities in our lives is gender. Our belief that men and women are separate creates a ‘me vs them’ scenario when really we are all one. If we can push beyond ‘he’ and ‘she’ and our stereotypical attachment to being one or the other, we can reduce divisiveness and discover a superior answer. We can institute Gender Physics in our lives and be both. Seeing ourselves as different expressions of the same will enable us to hold two opposing views at once and like those kids from the Stanford study it will set us up for future success.