Friday, October 2, 2009

How to Leaders Manage a Paradox Over Time - Part II

StressJugglepe06131jpg In a previous blogs, I discussed how to resist the simplistic slide into either/or thinking when dealing with a paradox (1) Instead of choosing sides, leaders need to manage the paradox over time by placing their attention on the tension. This involves inviting those affected by the paradox to follow the steps outlined below:


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
This was discussed in the previously cited blog. (1)

2. Build trust
The founding fathers of the United States struggled with the centralized and decentralized paradox when they were writing the U.S. Constitution. While many of the members of the Continental Congress wanted a strong federal government (e.g., Alexander Hamilton), others were leery of giving too much power to the Federalists and wanted to remain independent states (e.g., Thomas Jefferson). Trust in each other and the vision for which they were drawn to Philadelphia enabled them to create the US Constitution, a document that manages the paradoxical tension between federalism (centralize) and states’ rights (decentralize).

Washingtonj0397921jpgUnfortunately, a survey of 12,750 employees found trust to be very low in most organizations. (2) Think of trust as a thick bungee cord that holds the team together as they stretch to manage these conflicting issues of a paradox simultaneously. Without trust, the team won’t hang together as tensions heighten.

To create trust on your paradox team, follow these steps adapted from leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith (3):

a. Ask each team member to write their answers (confidentially) to two questions:

  • “On a 1-10 scale (10 is the highest), how much trust do you feel is on this team now?”
  • “On a 1-10 scale, how much trust do you feel we need on this team to effectively manage this paradox over time?”

b. Invite a team member to calculate the average score for each question. Discuss the results. If the team believes that the gap between current trust and needed trust must be bridged, continue to the next step.

c. Ask the team, “If every team member could work on two key behaviors that would help us close the gap between current trust and needed trust, which two behaviors should we all try to change or work on?” Have each team member write his or her selected behaviors on flip charts.

d. Combine those that are similar. Then prioritize the behaviors in order to identify the two most important behaviors that every team member needs to work on.

e. During follow-up meetings, ask each team member to identify how they and one of their team members demonstrated these trust behaviors. Each person should also ask the group for suggestions for improvement. The person receiving the ideas must not judge or critique the ideas. He or she should listen and say "thank you." Those providing the suggestion need to focus on the future, not the past. (As my friend Mike says, it’s OK to look at the past, just don’t stare.)

3. Maintain the balance of power.
Ask your team to consider what actions they could take if they perceive one issue is receiving too much attention, focus, or power. Illustrate the importance of maintaining equal power by asking the team to imagine the following scenario: you're in the meeting discussing the allocation of training related to a paradox you mapped two weeks ago. During this meeting, pretend that most of the members of the team become very one-sided and start advocating for only one of the paradox issues.

For example, if you had mapped the commercial banking strategy and retail sales paradox two weeks ago, imagine that the majority of team members become very excited as they discuss the new commercial banking training schedule. As the leader, you realize that there is no balance of power. If the team makes decision as to how much training, who goes to the training, and the dollars allocated for the training right now, those decisions will be lopsided in favor of the commercial banking strategy. As Ben Franklin said: A man in passion rides a mad horse!

To avoid riding your horse off a cliff and experiencing the subsequent collateral damage, ask your team to generate a few practical tactics that would restore the balance of power. Let them brainstorm a number of answers.

4. Pay equal attention to each issue.
It is important that both issues in a paradox receive approximately the same amount of attention. You can quantify the amount of attention that each issue is receiving by observing the amount of time allocated to the issue in meetings. Therefore, ask your team to write a few ideas to help them schedule attention to both issues. After they do so, share these ideas from other executives:

a. Agendas. Mandate that meeting agendas allocate equal time for both issues.

b. Minutes. Review the action items in the minutes of your meetings. Both sides of the paradox should have approximately the same number of action items.

c. Formal dialogue. In a decade long study of 150 employees in one organization, Professor Ann Westenholz found that paradoxical tensions were better managed when there was “a forum for discussion where those with different frames of reference could meet and discuss those differences.” () She also reported more divergent thinking, the willingness to see other point of views, if these meetings included the presence of employees who were capable of paradoxical thinking. How can you adapt this idea to your environment?

5. Identify your smoke signals
Native American’s (and soldiers along the Great Wall of China in ancient China) used smoke signals to communicate information, often an early warning. You also need an early warning system that sends the signal that there is too much emphasis on one issue of a paradox.


For example, imagine your working to manage the “increase sales and improve customer service” paradox. How would you know if people were getting carried away with the sales side of the paradox at the expense of service? What would be an early warning that people were getting carried away with the sales issue? One bank executive said that an early warning signal of too much emphasis on sales would be complaints from one of the supervisors of the customer service representatives (CSRs). The bank executive pointed out that this supervisor had been on a “customer loyalty” committee a year earlier, thus she was very sensitive to people losing focus of customer service. Thus, the CSR supervisor had become such a strong advocate for customer service that she would be the first to notice any negative consequences caused by of an overemphasis on sales.

Who could be the early warner of overemphasizing customer service, the other issue in our paradox example? Another executive I coached told me that her recently hired sales manager would be the first to know if too much attention was being paid to customer service at the expense of sales. She explained that the sales manager receives a daily report on the sales referrals from CSRs. If the CSRs spend too much time on service issues at the expense of sales referrals, the sales manager would see this reflected in this customer service referral metric.

At a recent party, a management professor told me that she believed that a leader's job was to relieve tension for their followers. I disagreed because I believe that a leader's job is to help manage the tension that is inherently in our work these days. Competing priorities, conflicting stakeholder, and contradictory demands is the nature of work today. The tension is already here.

How can you use these blogs to help you lead by managing this tension? Let me know…

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.


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


4. Ann Westenholz; Paradoxical Thinking and Change in the Frames of Reference. A Study of Employees' Thinking Processes, Organization Studies; January 1, 1993.

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