Spotlight – Managerial Practices: How paradoxical thinking creates agile leadership
How can paradoxical thinking be used to help managerial practices evolve and leadership skills improve? Camille Pradies, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Management at EDHEC Business School and a leading expert in the field of paradox theory, shines a light on the question.
Camille Pradies, Ph.D., Ph.D, is Associate professor of management at EDHEC Business School and a leading expert in the exciting (and relatively new) field of paradox theory. How does paradoxical thinking help managerial practices evolve and leadership skills improve? Can it help develop agility and support complex decision-making processes in business?
In this spotlight feature, Camille Pradies gives a fascinating insight into paradox theory and its impact on managerial practices and leadership.
Leadership has been so overused as a term, that it can often be misused or misinterpreted. What exactly do we mean when we speak of leadership?
Camille Pradies: The full meaning of the word has evolved significantly over time and research. At first, leadership was seen as a personality trait. It was described in terms of features that were attributed to masculinity, such as height, manliness, extroversion, etc. Today, we are more concerned by the process of influence. This encompasses the interactive relationship between leaders and followers.
Peter Northouse (In leadership- Theory and Practice, sage, 2010) provides a definition of leadership which I highly recommend: "A process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal." Effectively defining leadership is essential for anticipating all the possibilities. If it is defined as a "game of influence", it leaves the door open to a wide range of behaviours that aim at achieving this objective.
What type of leadership behaviours are you referring to?
To exercise one's leadership, the leader may choose from various behaviours and processes, such as providing motivating and ambitious incentives, showing empathy, sharing a vision for the future, or inviting individuals to "think outside the box" among others. But apart from this selection of behaviours, we must understand that leadership sits at a very particular crossroad where leader, follower and a specific context come together. This requires agility. The leader must be able to juggle various types of behaviour depending on the context and on the follower's expectations. This is where paradoxical thinking becomes essential.
What is paradoxical thinking?
Essentially, it is a way of addressing questions from different angles. Traditionally, we look at our choices as being good or bad, which leads to viewing our options as contradictory. For example, on an individual level, many parents ask themselves whether they would like to be productive at work or a more attentive parent. On a professional level, imagine being in a situation where you are torn between remaining loyal to your personal values on the one side and having to enter office politics in order to climb the ladder, on the other. In a business context, as a leader or manager, you might find yourself contemplating whether you should be empathetic towards your team, or "on the contrary", place an emphasis on productivity.
These are paradoxes.
According to the definition given by Smith and Lewis (2011 - see also Smith & *Lewis, 2022), to be classified as a paradox, the concept must meet 3 criteria:
It must consist of contradictory elements which should be interrelated, and persistent over time.
I find the metaphor of breathing used by *Barry Johnson (2014) useful when I exchange with students. Inhaling and exhaling are contradictory, they are interrelated and they are persistent (we hope!). This simple illustration already provides a glimpse into the importance of paradoxical thinking. One would never contemplate having to choose between one (inhaling) or the other (exhaling). This means that there is a way for them to coexist.
Is paradoxical thinking born out of the desire to abandon?
The comparison to breathing stops here. Paradoxical thinking is simply a way of allowing us to address the question differently. It is not about A or B, but about discovering which parts of A and B are important to oneself and how to preserve, achieve and develop them.
Let us take the example of a company that has centralised and hierarchical organisation. The Strategic Planning Committee decides that it would like to change to an agile and more autonomous culture within its business units to improve performance. By rushing the process and concentrating too eagerly on the desired result, the company risks achieving its goal only in the short-term. The process may lead to losing sight of the elements that made each business unit successful in the past.
By identifying the structure as the problem and autonomy as the solution, we end up with tunnel vision. Centralisation and hierarchical structure can therefore be as important as agile and autonomous units. Solutions reached from such an outlook are only likely to work in the short-term. Focusing solely on autonomy could lead to burnouts and to team members no longer being clear on who plays what role. The theory of paradoxes, therefore, teaches us not to see one problem, (i.e., centralisation) and one solution (i.e., autonomy). Instead, we must see a paradox - i.e., the inherent tensions between centralisation and autonomy that exist in all forms of organizing - that requires us to choose the elements that are beneficial to the company, both from centralisation and hierarchical structure and from agile and autonomous units.
So, paradoxical thinking is a form of compromise?
No (!) In reality, paradoxical thinking invites us to go beyond compromise, since we strive to achieve both A and B, while also optimising both options. In their new book (Smith and Lewis, 2022) *Wendy Smith and Marienne Lewis discuss the varied ways of optimising. It can be done by finding innovative solutions combining opposites but also by constantly alternating between both poles at different point in time or in different spaces.
How can we implement it and adapt our managerial practices?
I teach EDHEC Executive MBA participants several techniques which can help avoid the tunnel vision or 'good vs. bad' choices highlighted in the example above. One example recommended by my colleague Joe Cheal in his book (Cheal 2012) which I often do with management participants starts with each of them identifying a decision-making scenario. A recent example of one participant was deciding whether they should start their own business or stay in their organisation. The goal here is to navigate the tension between playing it safe or taking risk aka the risk paradox.
Step One: Integration Technique
The process begins with the integration technique. The integration technique consists of brainstorming and writing down anything that comes to mind regarding two identified contradicting concepts.
Step Two: Evaluate and Refine
The next step in the process is to begin evaluating key elements of the paradox, reviewing each point according to the level of importance and meaning. The goal here is to reach the most precise list as possible regarding what is truly needed, necessary and important.
Step Three: Intgrate/Separate
The third step consists of scoring each of the items from 1 to 5 and then further refining the priorities so that only the most important, relevant and key points remain. By only examining the most important criteria, this enables you to see what options are available.
This allows you to:
- "integrate"; find a solution that integrates the paradoxes, or
- "separate"; opt for complementary solutions.
Students exploring the risk paradox may realise the many ways to navigate the tension. For example, they may consider pushing for the creation of an intrapreneurship position (i.e., being an entrepreneur within an organisation) whereby they are able to integrate "staying" within the organisation and "becoming an entrepreneur". Alternatively they may ask their current employer to reduce their working contract to 4 days a week so that they can dedicate 1 day to develop their entrepreneurial project thereby separating temporally moments where they are "staying" within the organisation and moments in which they "focus on entrepreneurship".
How does paradoxical thinking serve leadership?
As we have already established, paradoxical thinking allows for increased creativity, thinking differently, and coming up with ideas for new solutions. This capacity is a form of agility that is today becoming more fundamental than ever before. It is profoundly evolutionary for managerial thought processes and practices.
Paradoxical thinking allows teams to feel reassured when faced with a problem that seems unsolvable. This is because their leader has both the means to explain the underlying opposite pairs at play and defend the paths to take, because the process looks at the key issues and priorities and identifies the optimum choices at one point in time while recurring nature of those tensions. This is what leadership is about. This methodology can benefit managers beyond decision-making. As a part of a group, a person who practices paradoxical thinking can create a link between "integrating" and "separating" solutions, alternating between the two.
Paradoxical leadership is not "either or" thinking, it is essentially about navigating opposite demands and it both requires and enables agility, which is why it is a powerful tool for management and leadership, particularly in today's world of constant challenge and change.
Are certain profiles more at ease with paradoxical thinking than others?
Clearly, we are not all the same, everyone has individual qualities, attributes and traits. And it is true that certain profiles and even certain cultures, such as Asian culture, which is founded on the pillars of equilibrium (yin and yang), are more open to paradoxical thinking than others. But anyone can learn to develop this way of thinking and as a result, improve their managerial practices. It takes work and commitment to practice, but it is possible.
But never forget that we can manage and navigate a paradox but we may never resolve it!
Barry, J, 2014. Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. HRD Press.
Cheal, J. 2012.
Solving Impossible Problems: Working Through Tensions and Paradox in Business. The GWiz Training Partnership; 1st edition
Northhouse, P. 2010. In Leadership- Theory and Practice. Sage.
Smith, W. K., & Lewis, M. W. 2022. Both/and thinking: Embracing creative tensions to solve your toughest problems. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
How to improve your leadership skills with an executive MBA
The EDHEC EMBA is a 16-month part-time programme designed to equip you with the insights, knowledge, and personal resolve to lead the transformation your career and your business need:
- Refine your strategic, financial, and business leadership competencies.
- Develop your capacity to lead with confidence and authenticity.
- Develop an international network of experienced professionals.