Why Some People Think You’re Great And Others Don’t (It’s Polarity Stupid!)

People need to understand polarity – opposing viewpoints that seem to negate each other. With some vigor, my coaching clients challenge me to explain why feedback takes radically opposing positions. How can some peers praise and others debunk? They find the experience polarizing and off-putting. I find it tough to counsel and coach when surveys or 360⁰ reviews seem to split down the middle.

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Success comes down to better understanding what we mean by “polarity,” made more difficult in an era of political and social polarization. It is a question of leveraging polarity in managing the response to employee surveys and peer reviews.

Polarity originates in seeking balance.

Why Some People Think You’re Great And Others Don’t (It’s Polarity Stupid!) 1
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Polarity originated in chemistry, physics, and electrical studies. It refers to the force that bonds atoms together. The atoms share electrons that attract or repel, seeking a stabilizing balance where their poles match or complement each other. Intervention or accident can alter that balance, producing, for instance, cellular mutations or viral diseases.

Applying these concepts to language presents new challenges. Words, after all, contain values expressed as sentiments. Analysis of the feelings expressed in employee satisfaction surveys and performance reviews reflect a range of views we summarize as polarity. In other words, the response language will reveal a tendency to move in one direction or another. Respondents may trend neutralpositive, or negative. For example, a survey may ask, “What do you think of the company company’s pay structure?”

However, survey responses rarely chart that simply for several reasons:

We can chart the number of responses in each mode to illustrate these responses spread. A theoretically “ideal” spread might form a bell curve or normal distribution where most responses favor neutral responses. If we quantify the responses, trending positive and negative, we will see an equal distribution to the left and right of “neutral.”

What to make of “unbelievable?”

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A comment like “unbelievable” could be a positive or negative extreme sentiment. My job centers on identifying the “sweet spot” between extremes and working towards an understanding of how and why they pull apart instead of bring together.

When we look at human performance, the analysis enters murkier waters. For one thing, the study occurs in a more sensitive context. Respondents’ feedback reflects their bias and situational perception. Moreover, the person subjected to the inputs is emotionally sensitive to the remarks, whether neutral, positive, or negative. They are often quick to voice their dissatisfaction, feeling we cannot quantify the sentiments expressed without inviting polarization.

For example, the employee survey or peer assessment might ask, “How would you describe the manager’s team leadership?” Positive responses might say, “Good.” Negative replies might include “Bad.” And a neutral answer might read, “It does not apply because I am not assigned to the leader’sleader’s team.”

Extreme negative inputs might include “The worst team leader I have known.” And extreme positive feedback might say, “The team leadership is outstanding!” But the people who are the subjects of such evaluations may be confused when they find themselves described in both extremes.

Something of value lies in the center of things.

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As a coach, I find that employee surveys and performance assessments reflect the inputs of people with different experiences and approaches to their everyday situations. There is bound to be some polarization. But it is essential to understand that this polarization differs from the knee-jerk responses that riddle social media, mainstream media editorials, and political pundits.

When responses vary dramatically, they hurt, confuse, and anger the assessment subjects. However, I see an opportunity to redirect the opposing positions in that confusion. I believe a real commonality lies amidst “What I think,” What they think,” And “What you think?”

We should consider the intent and perception of the most extreme inputs. However, a more helpful reading focuses on values arising from statistical middles. The I, You, and They can parse the sentiments expressed at the center of the positive or negative skews.

To be the most influential leaders we can be, we must create, model, and communicate consistency in leadership behavior. The employees surveyed and the peers reviewing fellow peers look for consistent character behavior.

It’sIt’s okay for subjects to wallow in the language of extreme positive remarks. We should also allow them time to vent over extreme negative feedback. However, we can work together on the comments at the center of the skew. In other words, I treat the most extreme inputs as outliers within the one-on-one context.

Treat assessment as an opportunity.

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At the center, we will find actionable sentiments and inputs inviting a deeper dig. We should mine the positive inputs for behaviors worth strengthening. Likewise, we will discover behaviors among the negative comments, behaviors we can coach and redirect. Employee satisfaction surveys and 360⁰ performance reviews should then drive a joint focus on “the three A’sA’s of managing polarities: aware, align, and acquire” (Leslie, Luciano, Mathieu, & Hoole, 2018).

Every survey and assessment tool deserves self-assessment. We must revisit and rehash the tool’s performance. We must also consider the appropriateness and applicability of the assessment tool itself. For example, research has shown that high grade-level readability can influence results. So, administrators must regularly reassess how they “design, write, and implement surveys” (Velez & Ashworth, 2007).

Polarity need not equal polarization.

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The ubiquitous spread of “polarization” across our culture has cost the word its meaning and meaningfulness. Still, we conduct employee surveys and peer reviews in a social climate of anger, frustration, and bigotry. Administrators must design and implement tools that cut through that practiced and perceived bias.

Administrators must read results without that bias. As importantly, they must communicate results in a way that manages the subject’s understanding. They might, for instance, spend time explaining the survey or assessment tool – how it was designed and implemented. They might acknowledge known weaknesses and needs to improve in the process. This recognition presents the person with context and focuses on the results as distinct from external contexts, using polarity to leverage understanding and optimize performance.

As a coach, I explain that statistical samples are descriptive, not prescriptive. They report participant inputs (data) without analyzing them. The valuable and helpful information lies in patterns (behaviors) we see in the data. Responsible leaders want those behaviors to align with organizational goals. So, as coaching leaders, it is our job to negotiate the future of those behaviors.

Works Cited

Leslie, J., Luciano, M., Mathieu, J., & Hoole, E. (2018). Challenge Accepted: Managing Polarities to Enhance Virtual Team Effectiveness. People + Strategy, 41(2), Spring. SHRM. Retrieved from http://cclinnovation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/hrps-41.2-polarities-feature.pdf

Velez, P., & Ashworth, S. (2007). The Impact of Item Readability on the Endorsement of the Midpoint Response in Surveys. Survey Research Methods, 1(2), 69-74. European Survey Research Association.

Wilson, T., Wiebe, J., & Hoffmann, P. (2008, April 16). Recognizing Contextual Polarity: An Exploration of Features for Phrase-Level Sentiment Analysis. Computational Linguistics, 35, 3. Retrieved from https://watermark.silverchair.com/coli.08-012-r1-06-90.pdf?token=AQECAHi208BE49Ooan9kkhW_Ercy7Dm3ZL_9Cf3qfKAc485ysgAAAscwggLDBgkqhkiG9w0BBwagggK0MIICsAIBADCCAqkGCSqGSIb3DQEHATAeBglghkgBZQMEAS4wEQQMqPGjocNk9-Rqz46XAgEQgIICeiQ2N3HxZMBxLIFpOLewzhdwbsTxII5bfg


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