Seeing paradoxes everywhere … and learning to manage them
Camille Pradies, Associate Professor at the EDHEC Business School, and international specialist in the theory of paradoxes, proposes to prepare students and professionals to identify and to manage their daily “paradox as usual”.
From the smallest social organisations (couples, families) to the biggest (multinational companies, international institutions …), from the most hierarchical structures to the most participatory, decision making is central. Every day the challenge is a major one because it involves combining dozens of criteria, beginning with the diversity of everyone’s opinions and feelings. But the need for efficiency, the pressure to come up with expected results, and a weak leadership culture can lead to a situation of false “mastery”: formal stability, clear and coherent choices, competing ideas under intense scrutiny … there is no shortage of examples.
However, a recent specialisation in management research shines a radically different light on the problem: paradoxes are everywhere, in diverse forms, and to ignore them – or to think that they have been “resolved” - can lead to ignoring whole strands of individual and collective possibilities. Camille Pradies, Associate Professor at the EDHEC Business School, and international specialist in the theory of paradoxes, proposes to prepare students and professionals to identify and to manage their daily “paradox as usual”.
Why worry about paradoxes when it seems that we can live with them quite easily?
Most of the time, managerial trends move departments and individuals from one strategy to another, from one way of thinking to another. The examples are legion: from centralisation and hierarchy to decentralisation and autonomy; from authoritarian decision-making processes to participatory management; from a strategy based on quality to one focused on reducing costs; from a strategy aimed at profit to one concerned with sustainability.
To view such trends independently and as passages from one to the other is mistakenly to see one trend as a problem (“hierarchy and centralisation no longer work for our organisation”) and the other as a solution to the problem (“we should promote decentralisation and autonomy”). However, individuals are usually invested – in terms of values, emotions, and achievements – in one trend and so, tensions and disagreements arise. Those attached to centralisation and hierarchy may fear the consequences of too much autonomy and so resist its adoption, just as those who are committed to autonomy might believe that the hierarchy will constrain their actions too much and thus resist its introduction.
In reality, the paradoxes - interdependent pairs of opposites – are everywhere, and many of the problems that organisations face are paradoxes to be managed rather than problems to resolve (1) (2) (3). The idea behind the thinking that is called paradoxical is that we should begin to see, to remain with our earlier example, the centralisation/hierarchy and decentralisation/autonomy as two poles of a paradox. To think of autonomy and hierarchy as a paradox is to see the value in each of those fields and to try to make the most of the advantages of the two worlds.
In this way, seeing paradoxes can make individuals, and thus their organisations, more adept at meeting contemporary challenges. We save time when we stop tilting at windmills and accept the fact that paradoxes are everywhere and cannot be resolved. Thus we equip ourselves to understand why members of an organisation disagree about polarising issues, to welcome the wisdom in the resistance when changes are made, and to anticipate better the evolutions (4).
Identifying paradoxes, or, how to “wear new glasses”
At the heart of the theory of paradoxes is the notion that we must stop wanting to solve the myriad intrinsically insoluble problems that we face at work and in our lives, by developing the skills needed to understand (and even anticipate) these problems and to manage them better. (5) But how do we identify them?
According to Smith and Lewis’ definition (1) (6), paradoxes meet three criteria: they are contradictory elements that are interlinked and persist over time. In everyday terms, this expression seems somewhat misused in relation to the approach that the researchers are taking. When a problem can be resolved with a Yes or No, then it is not a paradox. The dynamic that lies behind one alternative – or two opposing currents both of which are necessary to the success of the individual, group, or organisation – is essential to defining it (or them).
Thus, it is a question of identifying the signs that make up these criteria (and which, when taken together, show that the situation is really a paradox), by putting on new glasses through which to look at the daily tensions and decisions. The signals of a contradiction are stress, discomfort, a feeling of being overloaded, and lack of visibility, even a vicious circle we cannot exit (7). If you have the impression of having to manage contradictory goals, then you are in the presence of … a contradiction.
The interconnection shows itself, for example, when abandoning one strategy in favour of another seems like a loss. If preferring one element means putting aside another element seen as important, pertinent, or productive, then the two are interrelated. Persistence over time is probably easier to identify; in the face of several situations, an analysis that “runs in a loop”, endlessly bringing the interlocuters into the same underlying tension and dysfunction, is one illustration.
Here are some paradoxes frequently found in the professional world:
- Corporate strategy: How to have a real social impact and limit the company’s carbon footprint, while also meeting its commercial goals? How to make decisions that respond to the issues of today and tomorrow? Should we respect limits or exceed them? Should we concentrate on creating value for our shareholders and investors, or for a broader group of stake holders?
- Management: How can I manage my work in a way that allows me to focus on my core strengths while also thinking about the future and the challenges ahead? How can I have compassion for my colleagues while also ensuring that they are being productive? And conversely, how can I show my commitment to the work while dealing with so many other, personal, issues?
- Leadership: How to navigate between autonomy and control, empathy, and authority? Where is the balance between authenticity and following corporate culture and the company’s expectations? How do we manage the ambitions and sensitivities of individuals within a group that has its own goals?
- Health professionals: How can I provide care and fulfil my social mission while also keeping an eye on the financial outcomes? How to manage the short and medium term with my patients? (8)
What tools are available for managing paradoxes?
The most scrupulous might begin by sitting tests and simulations in order to evaluate their capacity
to identify and manage paradoxes. But for most of us, changing the question(s) is a salient prerequisite for avoiding the temptation of the simplistic “one problem, one solution”. Recognising certain structural elements will encourage paradoxical thinking, including that resources are limited, the timeline of a project can be altered, and that institutions and incoherence are not damaging if they are managed.
Managing paradoxes goes well beyond making a simple compromise in the face of conflicting demands and modalities: one must face up to the contradictions and even imagine how they might be unified. 3 Confronted by strategic vacillation or in anticipation of organisational change, for example, paradox theory promotes the integration of the two dimensions. What do dimension A and dimension B offer us? What are the elements in each that are seen as tangibles, indispensables, structural? Do some options allow the integration of some of these elements, and do others lean towards separate treatment? What happens if we neglect one dimension in favour of another? Articulating these elements allows us to find a dynamic balance (1), without fear of being “consistently inconsistent” in decision making – quite the contrary (6).
A central but surprising part of the paradoxical approach involves the emotions. Given that paradoxes are everywhere, they create tensions between our negative feelings (guilt, anger, fatigue), and the positive (motivation, energy). My own research (8) (9) suggests that paying attention to the emotions can be key to dynamic management. The emotions do not only tell us about our attachment to certain approaches or entities and to the way in which we experience the norms of our company, but also leave traces on the energy/fatigue duality and invite us to find a balance between demands and emotional energy. Feelings are part of the journey of learning how to navigate paradoxes. They can also help us to identify “allies” that suffer from these paradoxes but
also want to free themselves from them and go forward.
Finally, the levers that the paradoxical approach offer must be permanently reactivated and adapted. In a recent article (10), I discuss Emmanuel Macron’s decisions in the face of the Covid pandemic; he had shown a paradoxical spirit in his writings since 2011 and throughout his first presidential campaign (“at the same time”), following the lines of thought of Paul Ricoeur. My work underlines the fact that in a turbulent environment, the “paradoxical spirit spectacles” must be put on again and again, while admitting that there is no optimal path to take. In addition, and especially in the face of exceptional events and issues, adaptability, responsiveness, and resilience are indispensable complements to a paradoxical approach.
(1) Smith, W. K., & Lewis, M. W. (2011). Toward a theory of paradox: A dynamic equilibrium model of organizing. Academy of management Review, 36(2), 381-403.
(2) Smith, W. K., Lewis, M. W., & Tushman, M. L. (2016). Both/and leadership. Harvard Business Review, 94(5), 62-70.
(3) Johnson, B (2020). And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma. Human Resource Development Press.
(4) Miron-Spektor, E., Ingram, A., Keller, J., Smith, W. K., & Lewis, M. W. (2018). Microfoundations of organizational paradox: The problem is how we think about the problem. Academy of Management Journal, 61(1), 26-45.
(5) Johnson, B. 2014. Reflections: A Perspective on Paradox and Its Application to Modern Management. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 50(2): 206–212.
(6) Smith, W. K. 2014. Dynamic Decision Making: A Model of Senior Leaders Managing Strategic Paradoxes. Academy of Management Journal, 57(6): 1592–1623.
(7) Pradies, C., Tunarosa, A., Lewis, M. W., & Courtois, J. (2021). From vicious to virtuous paradox dynamics: The social-symbolic work of supporting actors. Organization Studies, 42(8), 1241-1263.
(8) Pradies, C. (2022). With head and heart: How emotions shape paradox navigation in veterinary work. Academy of Management Journal, (ja).
(9) Pradies, C., Aust, I., Bednarek, R., Brandl, J., Carmine, S., Cheal, J., ... & Keller, J. (2021). The lived experience of paradox: How individuals navigate tensions during the pandemic crisis. Journal of Management Inquiry, 30(2), 154-167.
(10) Lê, P., & Pradies, C. (2022). Sailing through the storm: Improvising paradox navigation during a pandemic. Management Learning, 13505076221096570.