Learning & Development, Talent

Leadership: Embracing Paradoxes

The word “paradox” probably conjures up notions of logical puzzles and brain-straining impossibilities—the types of concepts most would want to keep far away from a business and its leaders. But paradoxes do exist, and some suggest that learning to understand and embrace them may be beneficial for developing leadership skills and creativity.

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The Definition of ‘Paradox’

First, let’s be clear on what a paradox is. Merriam-Webster gives several definitions of the word, including:

  • A tenet contrary to perceived opinion
  • A statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true
  • An argument that apparently derives self-contradictory conclusions by valid deduction from acceptable premises

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like there is much value in such notions. However, learning to understand and manage the paradoxes that exist in everyday life can set one apart from others who consistently struggle against conflicting aims.

Understanding and Managing Paradoxes

“Being dragged in two different directions, simultaneously, should only create tension and stress,” write Loizos Heracleous and David Robson in an article for BBC Worklife. And yet, they add, although counterintuitive, these situations can actually work to our advantage.

In fact, they point to studies from psychologists and others indicating that those who learn to embrace paradox “show greater creativity, flexibility and productivity.” Apparently, the “dual constraints actually enhance their performance,” they say.

Research cited by Heracleous and Robson suggests that the so-called “paradox mindset” of embracing seemingly contradictory truths helps people break down assumptions and look at problems differently.

Embracing Paradox

For example, consider the phrase “doing more with less.” While this has become a mantra of Lean and Six Sigma gurus and cost-cutting fanatics around the world, someone faced with this concept for the first time might find it paradoxical.

This is because an underlying assumption many people have is that output relates to input by a fixed ratio: “It takes five person-hours of work to build one widget. Therefore, in order to produce more widgets, we need more workers.” Making those workers more efficient (or increasing their hours) solves the paradox. If the workers can create the widget in 3 hours instead of 5, fewer workers could potentially create more widgets.

Analyzing paradoxes is an admittedly philosophical exercise that might seem superfluous for most managers. But creativity and problem-solving are often the tools that set great companies apart from their competition.

In these especially challenging times, embracing paradox just may be the antidote we need.