Dr Eric Albertini unpacks ‘Dealing with Paradox’ as one of the 15 ‘future fit skills’ that are critical to being relevant and competent, if not advanced, in the future of work.
Are you an either-or person? Do you encounter everything as either right or wrong, win or lose, good or bad, us or them, oil and vinegar? Or do you allow space for the many paradoxes that define much of the complex world we live and work in?
Today, organisations and the people working in them find themselves in an environment that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), and under these conditions, tensions that are ongoing and seemingly overwhelming can be difficult to understand, much less easy to address, without the ability to deal with paradox and seeming contradictions. It’s here where the ‘both/and’ vs ‘either/or’ thinking is crucial. How you deal with paradox is one of the critical 15 future fit skills that assesses how effective you are in the areas that are most important in the world of work today and in future.
What is paradox in a work context?
Paradoxes exist when seemingly contradictory activities operate together. In a business and management context, here are some of the most evident paradoxes:
- Teamwork – Individuals give of their best when they work in teams. Teams succeed when each individual draws on their insight and individual capabilities.
- Success and Failure: For a person to succeed, you must first allow them to fail.
- Work and Rest: To produce their best work, people need to rest. Or as Indira Gandhi said: “You must learn to be still in the midst of activity, and vibrantly alive in repose.”
- Hard and Soft Skills: You need both hard skills such as logical intelligence, and soft skills such as emotional intelligence – just as the skilled potter needs soft ways to mould the clay, and hard ways to fire it.
- Efficiency and Effectiveness: The customer is best served when the organisation is efficient. The organisation is effective when it puts the customer first.
- Control and Freedom: People need controls to be free. Freedom can only be achieved if there are restraints.
- Change and Stability: To change safely, you need a stable base. To find stability, you need to change often. As Alfred Whitehead put it: “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.”
- Only Strong Leaders Show Vulnerability: Followers will follow you as a leader if they form a connection with you. People tend to connect with those leaders who show vulnerability. Vulnerability is often seen as a weakness. Weak leaders avoid showing vulnerability. Strong leaders can exhibit vulnerability and increase their leadership capabilities and ‘connectedness’.
By reframing these tensions beyond ‘either/or problems’ in need of a single solution, we are able to produce an outcome that is superior to tackling one demand at a time, with only one solution.
Paradoxes do not require a choice to be made as they are not conflicting ideas, but rather ideas that are connected at a deeper level – think of it as two sides of the same proverbial coin, six of one and half a dozen of the other. It is this ability to see, experience and navigate paradox as two sides of the same challenge that defines the individual with an evolved ability to deal with paradox, and is one of the fundamentally important 15 future fit skills of good leaders. Many, if not most of the challenges leaders face in the VUCA organisation today require ‘both/and’ thinking.
What are the benefits of ‘Dealing with Paradox’?
At an organisational level, when viewing and dealing with organisational issues as paradoxes, this
- Thinking on different levels – paradoxes prevent us from oversimplifying the organisational context and encourage us to think on different levels. They force managers to take a critical view of all the knowledge and information that reduces complex, changeable and ambiguous organisational phenomena to a simple arithmetical equation. Thinking in terms of paradoxes transforms the classic notion of ‘planning and control’ (which aspires towards clear, unambiguous parameters) into more diffuse concepts such as ‘dealing with’ or ‘managing’, doing greater justice to the complex environment in which managers work.
- Non-dogmatic thought – Paradoxes discourage us from taking a one-sided or dogmatic standpoint to an issue or problem. Thinking in terms of paradoxes enables us to avoid biased, self-referenced perspectives, becoming attached to a “truth” or clinging to a conviction that stems very much from our own perspective. It is precisely their irresolvable duality and the associated dichotomy that taps into a deeper level within the organisation, posing questions such as ‘What is really going on here?’, ‘What is the dynamic at play?’, or ‘How can we unite two seeming opposites?’ Removing the need for a clearcut answer allows things to emerge, including innovation, which fuels people’s vitality.
- When these inherent contradictions work together, success follows. Leaders who can navigate paradox have the biggest impact on business results. An inability to deal with paradox narrows our vision, limits possibilities and reduces the number of choices. It affects how you think, solve problems and make decisions.
Can you learn to be a paradoxical thinker?
An important question is whether you can learn paradoxical thinking or not? This is very definite YES. The paradoxical thinker learns to be open-minded, creative, think out-of-the-box and be curious. Look for the opposites, the unusual things, paying attention to things you have been ignoring or taking for granted. Paradoxical thinkers are sceptical – they do not accept what other people accept as a matter of routine or doing things in a manner simply because that’s how they have always been done.
To deal with paradoxes, learn to:
- Reframe the question – develop and practice ‘Integrative Thinking’ and consider divergent ideas or alternative poles simultaneously.
- Embrace and live with paradox – by accepting the tension and becoming comfortable with the discomfort (of the tension).
- Distance yourself and actively search for new possibilities.
- Adopt a position – conscious positioning along a continuum of perspectives.
- Polarity Mapping – this isa visual structure for confronting problems in industry, team collaboration and other challenges. It works for paradoxical or costly challenges, problems that can be worsened by focusing on only one element more than another. Polarity maps seek to balance the costs and benefits of values within a certain problem and can be adapted toward any field. Created by Barry Johnson, this concept was created to help problems and paradoxes, so that they can be solved in a realistic and multifaceted manner.
In this complex world, you need a more agile, penetrating mind that understands a more confusing, interconnected life and workplace. This is where learning to Deal with Paradox steps in and can illuminate what seems to be a murky path. P. Scott Fritzgerald used it in his short story “The Crack-Up” and the idea is present in the minds of modern society – “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”.
‘Dealing with Paradox’ is just one of the 15 Future Fit skills that the Future Fit Academy provides a comprehensive self-assessment index that assesses how effective you are in the areas that are most important in the world of work today. In harnessing and developing these 15 skills, the Future Fit Academy’s Future Fit Index provides a comprehensive self-assessment tool that assesses your level of effectiveness in these 15 critical skills needed to be effective now, and in the future world of work. Based on your comprehensive results, you can then structure a course of online study with individual Future Fit courses that teach you how to develop and stretch each of the 15 Future Fit capabilities.
The Future Fit Index is structured for both individuals and corporate environments – supporting the entrepreneur looking to improve their ability to compete more effectively and grow their business in a volatile and competitive world, the manager looking to develop and grow into a leadership role, through to the human capital specialist looking to inculcate a winning, future fit culture to drive business market leadership. For more information visit https://www.futurefitacademy.com
- Ralph Jacobson and Alfred Marcus “The CEO’s Greatest Challenge: Managing Paradoxes for Sustained Competitive Advantage” -May 26, 2010 Accessed Sep 2020
- Shereen Hijazi “Paradoxical Thinking” Accessed Sep 2020
- Ella Miron Spekter “Overwhelmed? Adopt a Paradox Mindset” Accessed Sep 2020
- Dave Ulrich, The RBL Group, https://www.rbl.net/, Accessed 20 Sep 2022