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Civil Service College Buona Vista
31 North Buona Vista Road, Singapore 275983

Centre for Healthcare Innovation
18 Jalan Tan Tock Seng, #04-01, Singapore 308443

Temasek Shophouse
28 Orchard Road, Singapore 238832

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Polarity Thinking in a Diverse Workplace

I’ve stopped seeing the world in Black and White. Things exist on a continuum. That’s how we should approach problems because there’s no one right way out and no one person to wrong. Polarity Thinking helps to widen our perspective and presents a snapshot of current situations and how we can be.

The Foreword Coffee team as of our last monthly company meeting, celebrating the birthdays of our September babies!

I first came across the idea of Polarity Thinking through a conversation with a friend, and I liked it a lot because it helps to widen a person’s perspective beyond the “either-or” thinking. False dichotomies happen when we think that there are only 2 solutions to a problem, and we fail to see alternatives especially in times of crisis which forces us to make quick decisions. It is also too simplistic to see things uni-dimensionally in the company without considering interactions that could take place between seemingly exclusive concepts. It is important for us to always consider interactions more than cause and effect, and remind our executive team to always consider both the trees and the forest when we plan and execute decisions. Polarity Thinking presents another tool we can use as a framework to help us consider the benefits and pitfalls in concepts that are opposites and related.

In Foreword Coffee, we train and hire people from diverse backgrounds, including those who are Deaf/hard-of-hearing, persons with autism, cerebral palsy, and/or people with mental health issues. Our company is small and young; 12 people in the team and our oldest teammate (I emphasize a lot on teamwork in the workplace and semantics help to foster the intended culture) is younger than 50. Our managers are Deaf, while most of our baristas and service crews have autism. As a Director, I deal with everything to help my managers run the coffee kiosks smoothly and the most important of all is Human Relations (my idea of “Human Resource”).

In the realm of Human Relations, things get tricky. I balance between being a Friend and a Boss (capitalizing the letters as they come with pre-conceived notions) and training in the workplace encompasses both Technical Skills and Social Skills. It is not easy to separate Friend from Boss because the hierarchy in the workplace is almost flat. Also, for the young teammates, their social circle in the company might be all that they have. Besides, as teammates, we are interested in each other as friends and I would also open up myself as being approachable should they need any assistance in their personal lives. When dealing with differently-abled persons (a term we use to collectively address persons with disabilities and/or special needs), we have to teach social skills alongside technical skills, especially in the service line where customer service at the front house is very important for good customer experience. We feel good about ourselves when we master new skills but this mastery also contributes negatively to social skills in expectable ways.

Matrix for the positives and negatives of being too friendly vs. too bossy

Like a balance between Yin and Yang, how do I navigate between being a Friend and a Boss at the same time to my team? The older teammates would understand and can separate work from personal lives. They respect each other and we work as partners — me learning from them when they share their thoughts and experiences in the company. The younger teammates sometimes cross the line by becoming too informal at work or disrespecting authority (e.g. not listening to instructions given out by the manager).

Taking the Polarity Thinking approach to balance the Yin and Yang of Human Relations

When we are at the negative end of being a Friend, one strategy is to impose stricter work rules, setting the tone in the workplace. For example, the young teammates are sometimes distracted by playing around with each other. A stricter work rule would mean “talk only during break time”. After work hours I can be more relaxed and we can travel home or have meals together.

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