Managers find themselves pulled in more directions than ever before. They must do more and spend less, act quickly and plan for the future, delegate and know the details, cut staff and take care of employees, and take risks and avoid costly mistakes.

All of these situations involve paradoxes – conflicting choices or conditions, each desirable in theory but seemingly impossible to reconcile in practice. You can learn to work effectively with these contradictions by:

Adopting a Mindset of Valuing Paradox

Part of our mind seeks certainty and precision; it rebels against the very notion of contradiction. In addition, corporate cultures value such abilities as “making hard choices”, “setting priorities”, and “biting the bullet” – behaviors that cut off certain alternatives in favor of others. By contrast, the mindset of paradox entails a commitment to synthesis – a willingness to practice “both/and” thinking when confronted with “either/or” choices. As Kenwyn Smith and David Berg put it in Paradoxes of Group Life, “By staying in the paradox, immersing oneself in the opposing forces, it becomes possible to discover the link between them.”

Cultivating Paradox

Once you appreciate the value of paradox (or at least its inevitability), you can go further by ensuring divergent viewpoints are brought to bear on an issue. For example, a team of Alfred Sloan’s senior managers once proudly reported back to him with a unanimous decision, and he responded by ordering the team to produce at least one dissenting opinion. Sloan, like many excellent managers, knew the value of opposing views. Good managers often consciously create opposition, believing that from thesis and antithesis is born a more powerful synthesis.

Engaging Paradox

Reconcile divergent perspectives through six methods:

1.    Develop “both/and” thinking by asking “How can both X and Y be true?” For example, ensuring a strong economic bottom-line can provide funds for investing in environmentally sound products, which in turn can boost revenues and reduce long-term costs.

2.    Use “best of both” thinking to reinforce the positive characteristics of each side of a paradox. For example, successful entrepreneurs take ‘educated risks’, getting rapid feedback from the marketplace to test new ideas before investing in them further. Instead of being paralyzed by endless analysis or losing money on unprofitable ventures, they benefit from the innovation that risk can yield, and the learning that mitigates risk.

3.    Expand the context in space. Ask, “How can you support the positive aspects of both sides of a paradox at different locations simultaneously?” For example, you can reduce the need to continually reorganize by distinguishing which functions are best centralized in one location to ensure consistent governance and which are best decentralized to capitalize on diverse geographic markets.

4.    Expand the context in time. Ask, “How can you achieve long-term results consistent with what you do in the short-term?” For example, it is often better to streamline your product portfolio in the short run instead of make across-the-board cuts in order to sustain long-term profitability.

5.    Expand the context in space and time. Ask, “How can the best of both sides be integrated in different locations (or emphasizing different functions) over time?” For example, the technique of sequencing priorities a child welfare institute to first strengthen its evaluation function to subsequently position its political advocacy work.

6.    Consider “neither/nor” thinking as an alternative to “both/and” thinking. Ask, “What higher level goal do both sides of the paradox seek to achieve?” For example, instead of deciding whether to follow a “technology push” or “market pull” strategy, let your higher goal of serving the customer inform when anticipating customer needs or uncovering them is likely be of greater service.

Embracing paradox is a powerful way to turn dysfunctional conflict into productive thinking, innovative solutions, and high performance. You can learn to not only value paradox but also cultivate it, and not only cultivate it but also make it work for you.

This post was adapted from our article “Learning to Thrive on Paradox”, which you can download here.