Friday, September 25, 2009

How to Leaders Manage a Paradox Over Time - Part 1

SeeSawj0232150jpgIn a previous blogs, I discussed how to make a diagnosis of a paradox, as well as map, and measure a paradox. (1, 2, 3, 4) I also pointed out that the best way to manage a paradox is to follow the four M’s seen below. This blog will focus on number IV.

The Four M’s of Managing Any Paradox

I. Make a Diagnosis

II. Map the Paradox

III. Measure the Paradox

IV. Manage the Paradox Over Time

As you deal with both issues of a paradox, over time many decisions will be made regarding allocating resources, expenditure of funds, assignment of tasks, and so forth. For example, I was teaching a group of bankers to manage their paradox (increase retail sales AND implement a new commercial loan strategy). After creating the paradox map and plot, the team needed to decide how to increase the emphasis on commercial banking. Should they increase training, design new marketing material, have a sales contest, hire more commercial bankers...? Yet at the same time they increased commercial banking sales, it was critical that the retail side not be neglected. Otherwise, they would experience the down side of over-focusing on the commercial side at the expense of the retail.


Managing the tension between the two issues of a paradox is analogous to sailing a small boat on windy day. If the wind grabs your sails and starts tipping the boat, you need to jump to the other side of the boat and hang over the edge while holding the ropes. You don’t pick one side and stick to it for the entire trip or drop the rope (Gilligan’s island here we come?). You get where you want to go by managing the tension between the rope and the wind (via the sails). That’s what keeps everyone moving. The same is true when you’re dealing with a paradox.

Unfortunately, according to the theory of cognitive dissonance (and common sense), we usually want to resolve tension when we feel it. Thus, leaders often find themselves favoring one issue of a paradox and then justifying or rationalizing their bias. This dangerous proclivity to pick sides - to see issues as only black or white - is what researchers Porras and Collins labeled the “tyranny of the either/or” in their book, Built to Last.

To resist the simplistic slide into either/or thinking when dealing with a paradox, instead of choosing side, leaders need to manage the paradox over time by placing their attention on the tension.

"Managing paradoxical tensions denotes not compromise between two, but awareness of their simultaneity." (5)

Manage the Paradox Over Time
To manage the tension between the two issues, conduct a “manage the paradox meeting.” (In my coaching and consulting work, this meeting is often an extension of the map and measure meeting discussed in the previous blogs.) In this meeting, explain to the team the importance of paying attention to both issues over time. Remind them of the side effects of overemphasizing either of the issues. Show them the paradox map and plot, illustrating what happens when there is a lack of balance. Then, invite them to follow the steps outlined below. We’ll focus on step 1 in this blog.

  1. Create a paradoxical vision statement
  2. Develop norms that build trust
  3. Balance the power
  4. Pay equal attention to each issue
  5. Identify your smoke signals

1. Create a paradoxical vision statement
To understand the cause of the nurse’s strike at the New Zealand hospital discussed earlier, researchers analyzed 196 leadership assessments on 20 nurse leaders and conducted over 80 hours of observations and interviews. They found that a narrow-minded view of the issues led to “divergent realities.” In other words, because the nurses and hospital administrators focused only on their individual goals, the overall organization suffered. (6) These leaders mistook their tunnel-vision for vision. By fixating on their own side, that they couldn’t see the value of both sides. This limited perspective is analogous to letting go of the rope in the sailboat on that windy day. It’s also why the bible teaches that “without vision, the people parish.”

Researchers at the hospital also discovered that the strike was finally resolved when both groups agreed saw the value of pursuing a common goal - improve the functioning of the hospital – while still making progress on their individual goals. Hospital management recognized that a pay rise for the nurses could improve the functioning of the hospital. Nurses felt that the pay raise demonstrated recognition for their work and would also motivate them do their jobs better. Progress was made only when both parties had a common vision. Unfortunately, everyone had to suffer through a strike before they opened their eyes. Pain pushes, vision pulls.

When Dodd and Favaro analyzed the paradoxical tensions of 1,000 companies over a 20 year period, the found that the "best performing companies strengthen the factor that unites the two sides." (7) They called it a common bond. Others call it a shared purpose statement. I call it a paradoxical vision statement because of the importance of emphasizing both issues over the long haul. Regardless of what you call it, avoid the pain of myopia by creating a paradoxical vision statement with your team. Here’s how:

Explain that each person will soon write his or her own paradoxical vision statement. This statement is a brief sentence that captures the spirit of the paradox and embraces the importance of both issues. It often has a marketing slogan type of feel to it. However, before they actually write their own statement, provide some examples. For example, when I was working with the team that had just mapped the commercial banking strategy and the retail sales paradox, they wrote the following statement, Big and Small, We Need Them All. That statement captures both sides of this paradox because it honors the large sales/loans associated with commercial banking and the often smaller sales from the retail side.

Several other examples of paradoxical issues and their corresponding vision statements (in parenthesis) that leaders have created in our classes are seen below:

Centralize Loan Processing AND Decentralize Decision Making
(Best Little Scorehouse in Banking)

Decrease Time to Market AND Increase Product Quality
(Get ‘er Done… Right!)

Care About Employees AND Hold Employees Accountable
(Know When To Hold ‘Em and Fold ‘Em)

Increase Sales AND Decrease Expenses
(GROW Me the Money)

Honor Our Traditions AND Embrace Our Future
(Building the Future On Our Foundation)

Improve Customer Service AND Grow the Business
(Service Is Our Guide to Growth)

Decentralize AND Centralize
(Caring Locally While Providing Globally)

Meet My Goals AND Coach Others
(The “I” In TEAM Is Me)

The statements in these examples may not mean that much to you, but that isn’t important. All that matters is that your statement serve as a reminder to everyone (i.e., those involved in the paradox you are working on) that both sides need to keep the big picture in mind as they make decisions that affect the paradox. (It helps if it has a little fun and marketing sizzle to it.) This sounds simple, but it is not easy. What often happens is that everyone agrees to pay attention to both issues, initially. But over time, they tend to lean toward their “favorite” issue. They become advocates or crusaders for “their side” of the paradox. They begin arguing for more resources or attention for their issue. Like the children in the playground, although they agreed to take turns when they first arrived, over time they want more attention paid to their needs.

By definition, there are always two sides to a paradox. That’s why the paradoxical vision statement is the first step to removing the mental blinders and seeing the power of both/and thinking. We’ll discuss the next steps in future blogs.

Is all this paradoxical thinking making sense to you?

Keep eXpanding,

P.S. The web-based eXpansive Leadership Method (XLM) Assessment measures paradox in leadership using the “Agility Score.” Within minutes of completing your assessment (which takes less than 20 minutes to fill out), you can download your highly personalized Profile - a comprehensive, 21 + page report and customized action plan in PDF format. Go to: to read about the assessment.





5. Lewis, Marianne; Exploring Paradox: Toward a More Comprehensive Guide, Academy of Management Review, 2000, 35, 4, 760-776.

6. Melanie M. Kan and Ken W. Parry; Identifying paradox: A grounded theory of leadership in overcoming resistance to change, The Leadership Quarterly, 15, 2004, 467–491.

7. Dodd, Dominic and Favaro, Ken, Managing the Right Tension, Harvard Business Review, December, 2006, 73.

8. WorkUSA® 2002 - Weathering the Storm: A Study of Employee Attitudes and Opinions,

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