Leveraging the Power of Paradox

Leveraging the Power of Paradox by Dr. Greg Waddell

Photo by Author, Ohio State University Campus

Our natural inclination is to resolve the paradoxes of organizational life. Before trying to eliminate opposing tensions, however, I would encourage you to consider the option of maintaining the tension as a normal requirement of growth and life.*

In my work in Argentina, I often found that my philosophy of leadership development clashed with the local cultural model. According to my way of thinking, leaders empower others by giving them the guidance, preparations, tools, and opportunities they need to develop themselves to their full potential. Most of the people I worked with, however, saw the leader as the authority, the one who made the decisions, and all the others were followers whose primary role was to obey the leader.

My goal and my passion was to raise leaders who could take on the work themselves. But the types of behavior that were needed to bring this about communicated to those potential leaders that I was not the type of leader they wanted to follow and consequently lowered my power to influence them. This is one example of the types of paradoxes that leaders face every day.

Classification of Paradoxes

A paradox is a set of conflicting yet interconnected forces that act concurrently and persist over time. In a true paradox, the elements appear logical when considered individually, but when juxtaposed seem contradictory or even absurd. Paradoxes can be categorized as follows:

  1. Knowledge paradoxes are those that involve one of the many contradictions inherent in knowledge acquisition and management. For example, the effort to disperse expert knowledge to a wider audience requires the codification of that knowledge in ways that make it accessible, thereby turning it into common knowledge.
  2. Interpersonal relationship paradoxes involve relationships between people in the workplace (or whatever other environment that involves people relating to each other). We are social by nature and cannot be fully human without relating to and being accountable to the social groups to which we belong. Yet we are also unique individuals who need autonomy to express our individuality. Coordination requires limitation of autonomy–yet organizations are most successful when individuals contribute their distinctive strengths.
  3. Performance paradoxes occur because most organizations have many constituents to whom they must answer and upon whom they depend for success. Each of these constituent groups represents goals and aspirations that often conflict with each other. The organization is caught in the middle trying to fulfill these conflicting demands.

In Search of Dynamic Equilibrium

The problem with trying to resolve all paradoxes is that you are trying to deny a fundamental characteristic of life itself. Long-term sustainability requires that we acknowledge and embrace the inherent tensions of many of our organizational paradoxes.

Taking a paradox perspective means that you accept the persistence of organizational tensions as normal and even necessary. Instead of trying to eliminate the tension, you develop skills for maintaining a dynamic equilibrium, a constant state of tension between opposing forces by cycling through responses to both.

Benefits of Adopting a Paradox Perspective

One of the benefits of this approach is that it helps the organization remain a learning organization. When the tensions of a dynamic equilibrium are removed, the organization falls into a state of inertia.

Through the process of maintaining a constant effort to maintain the tensions and respond to them, the organization develops flexibility and a culture of continuous improvement. A paradox perspective seeks to realize the synergistic potential inherent in opposing, yet individually legitimate, organizational forces.

In a world of diversity, change, and scarce resources, people naturally want to eliminate the ambiguity of paradox. But an organization that accepts the inevitability and normalcy of paradox is in a better position to turn these opposing forces into a source of continuous improvement and long-term sustainability.

What do you think? Should organizations seek alignment or value paradox? What are some paradoxes you have had to live with in your organizational experience?

1 This post was inspired by Wendy K. Smith and Marianne W. Lewis, “Toward a Theory of Paradox: A Dynamic Equilibrium Model of Organizing,” Academy of Management Review 35, no. 2 (2011): 381-403.

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