Ways to take action

Embracing our inner paradox

Camille Pradies , Associate Professor

Finding solutions to complex questions may require innovative approaches that can facilitate decision-making and enable more agile approaches. EDHEC Associate Professor, Camille Pradies talks about how “paradoxical thinking” could help shape tomorrow’s leaders, including those in healthcare.

Reading time :
14 Dec 2022

Do I need to work more or live more? Should I devote more time to my job or my child? Take risks or play it safe? Are the best leaders compassionate or assertive? Consultative or authoritative? Should our company emphasise exploration or exploitation? Focus on today or tomorrow? On the short term or long term?

Everywhere she looks, Camille Pradies sees people struggling between conflicting choices. But, as she tells her EDHEC students, it doesn’t have to be this way. “We spend our time hoping to find the right solutions to problems that seem contradictory. What we teach our students is that often what they’re facing is not a problem to be solved but rather a paradox between opposites that will always be there. What we really need to do is develop a mindset for living with and navigating paradoxes.”

Her field of research, called “paradox theory,” focuses on understanding opposite yet interrelated demands. Paradoxical thinking, a still relatively recent but fascinating concept influences leadership and organisational agility. Leaders capable of practising paradoxical thinking – by weighing interdependent but opposite demands – are able to tap into their creativity, to think differently, react with greater agility and come up with alternative ideas to find new solutions. In so doing, they are better able to defend their proposals and convince others and influence them towards a common goal, the essence of leadership.


Healthy choices

In the context of healthcare, an example of a paradox could be seen at the height of the pandemic in the acute struggle by exhausted but urgently needed frontline medical workers to achieve some semblance of work-life balance. Another was the emphasis on short term urgent Covid-related care during the pandemic as the world focused on the immediate crisis. The long-term health effects of cancelling or postponing other emergency treatments unrelated to Covid are now being widely felt. Addressing these paradoxes starts first with recognising them, says Camille Pradies. “Once we start seeing the world in terms of paradoxes, i.e., interdependent pairs of opposite goals, behaviours or values, we stop trying to make definite choices, to look for the right path. Rather, we can start predicting what will happen – the constant push and pull of opposite demands – and sometimes course correct if we see we are going too far in one direction. Paradox theory tells us to try to understand the broad patterns, to find a minimal threshold and optimise between the two seemingly opposite goals.”


Everyday, everywhere ?

She gives the everyday example of parents, spread thin between their work and their family. Viewing work and family demands as a paradox allows a distancing of oneself from the guilt of not spending enough time with the kids and to think concretely of conscious, targeted actions to be committed to them at specific moments in time. Such as volunteering in the school library once in a while in order to have more contact with them. As such, it is OK to have moments in which parents overly focus on work as long as they plan moments in which they are with their kids. “The answer may not lie in doing less on one side, it may mean doing more on the other, for example, the parents volunteering in their child’s school library.”

By thinking beyond simply a problem and a solution and considering the paradox as something to be navigated, the leader recognises the ebbs and flows of opposite goals, goes beyond compromise and instead seeks to optimise by finding beneficial elements from both options. Consider the question of home office where leaders ponder between offering individual team members flexibility and developing team spirit.

Optimising may be thinking about how to achieve both at different moments in time (i.e., moments for home office to allow employees to design their week as best fit and moments for face-to-face team meetings to build team culture). It may be also finding combined solutions (i.e., asking team members via pools what dates suit them best to meet collectively or creating team building opportunities online). Adds Camille, “It’s also OK if we can’t always optimise, we just have to think about both demands and their implications. In doing so, we move from ‘either/or’ thinking to ‘both/and’ thinking. Our options thus become A, B, both/and.”


Limits, compromises and finding support

Another pandemic-related example of a paradox thinking solution that strikes close to home for EDHEC students: how to move towards reopening universities while allowing large numbers of students to continue to study from home? In combining elements of classroom teaching with distance learning, hybrid teaching models have enabled professors to effectively and simultaneously engage with students present in the classroom while also focusing on those participating from their home.

So, are there limits to the application of paradox thinking in finding solutions?While paradox theory encourages us to optimise both goals, it’s important not to fully dismiss compromising,” says Camille. “We need to keep an eye on the consequences of our ‘optimised’ solution as at times the situation is such that compromising is our best option – developing self-compassion as we navigate paradox matters. We need to shy away from being an idealised paradoxical thinker in a way. For example, the pandemic invited kids’ disruptions inside video-conference meetings and we learnt to accept those incursions. One thing that may help is to pay attention to and even define warning signals that we’re over-focusing on one or the other goal and where on the navigation trail we find ourselves. For example, the parents volunteering in their child’s school library to strike a balance between work and life may consider that if they skip this volunteering for a full month, it may be a sign that they are starting to over-focus on work too heavily.”

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