• Published November 17, 2022
  • 3 Minute Read

How to Manage Paradox

How to Manage Paradox


Conflicting demands and either/or tensions are the norm for many managers. They don’t get resolved by tackling one demand at a time, or by making a “final” decision.

Paradoxes — also described as polarities, and sometimes mislabeled as problems — are dilemmas that seem to defy common sense and business acumen. They can be overwhelming, difficult to understand, complex, and seemingly impossible to address.

These tensions show up in all facets of organizational life, including leadership (control vs. empowerment), teamwork (tasks vs. relationships), strategy (competition vs. collaboration), structure (centralized vs. decentralized), and within ourselves (work vs. home).

As our white paper on managing paradox notes, the research is clear: Organizations, leaders, teams, and individuals that manage paradox are better performers than those who don’t.

Here are 2 tools to help you and your organization better understand and manage paradox.

2 Techniques for Managing Paradox

Polarity Mapping and Duality Mapping

Common business models and tools are not very useful in managing paradoxes.

Instead, we suggest mapping paradoxes through Polarity Mapping®, a concept developed by Barry Johnson, founder of Polarity Partnerships and author of Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, and Duality Mapping, a new approach developed by CCL.

Using Polarity Mapping to Manage Paradox

Polarity Mapping® is a means for managers and organizations to think about the larger value, or purpose, of balancing 2 polarities, as well as to determine specific action steps to manage paradox. You can use Polarity Mapping to:

  • Articulate 2 “poles” that are competing or at odds.
  • Look at the potential positive results (as well as the negatives).
  • Explore the drawbacks or fears related to over-emphasizing one or the other.

Here’s an example of a Tasks and Relationships polarity map, exploring a common unsolvable tension faced when leading virtual teams, as we explored in another white paper. Using this tool, you can easily see both the positive and negative consequences of each side of the pair, which shows why virtual teams are most successful when they have both a task focus and a relationships focus.

Infographic: Tasks and Relationships - How to Manage Paradox

Using Duality Mapping to Manage Paradox

Duality Mapping draws on the concept of yin and yang. Yin and yang in the Chinese classical philosophy originates from 2 of the oldest books in China, I Ching (or Book of Changes) and Tao De Ching.

The philosophy is based on the premise that everything in the world consists of 2 opposite elements that are partially conflicting and partially complementary.

Yin Yang Symbol - How to Manage Paradox

The yin-yang symbol stands as a reminder that paradoxes are interrelated and interdependent. Often the yin-yang symbol is viewed as showing unity-in-opposites, balance and equilibrium. But there are variations of the yin-yang symbol. The proportions of yin and yang may vary widely, interacting with each other and working together dynamically. The ancient philosophy reminds us that paradoxical forces are not only opposed, but also cooperate with each other.

Duality Mapping incorporates the yin-yang balancing philosophy. It also highlights the existence of both extremist and moderate groups within each of the 2 opposite elements and explores harmonies and tensions as they co-exist.

Without the ability to hold competing interests in mind, organizations risk losing sight of the wisdom and opportunities that emerge when leadership pursues paradoxical thinking.

Polarity Mapping and Duality Mapping are both practical and thought-provoking approaches to managing paradox.

By blending Eastern and Western philosophies, organizations may find the most effective, transformative solution to handling complex, paradoxical demands.

How do your leaders handle the tension and conflict around conflicting demands? What’s your organization doing to cultivate people who can think in terms of both/and?

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Develop leaders who can recognize and manage paradox and polarities with a customized learning journey using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Conflict Resolution, Emotional Intelligence, Listening to Understand, Leadership Paradox & Polarity, Psychological Safety, Virtual & Remote Teams, and more.

  • Published November 17, 2022
  • 3 Minute Read

Based on Research by

Jean Leslie
Jean Leslie
Senior Fellow & Director of Strategic Initiatives

Jean develops, oversees, and helps implement programs, projects, and processes that support the vision and the short- and long-term plans of the global Leadership Research and Analytics group. She’s published more than 100 pieces on leadership, assessment, and feedback — in the form of peer-reviewed articles, popular-press articles, book chapters, and books — and has presented over 70 papers at professional conferences such as the Academy of Management and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychologists.

What to Explore Next

Leading Effectively Article
Are You Facing a Problem? Or a Polarity?

Sometimes leaders think they have a problem. Really, they're faced with a polarity: an ongoing dilemma that feels unsolvable. How can leaders identify and handle workplace polarities?

Leadership in the Future of Healthcare: Befriending Polarity & Paradox

Tune into this webinar to learn the 6 leadership paradoxes related to leading effectively in the future of healthcare and next steps for assessing your response.

Leading Effectively Article
Today’s Top Leadership Tensions & How to Address Them

By understanding the 3 key leadership tensions that today’s managers are grappling with, your organization can help address them, improving retention and overall performance.

Leading Effectively Article
How to Make Servant Leadership More Sustainable? Balance Self & Others

It may seem like a paradox, but can we garner the benefits of servant leadership (and make it more sustainable), by encouraging leaders to take care of themselves first, in order to serve others more effectively?

Research Report
WORK 3.0: Reimagining Leadership in a Hybrid World

How we define work has evolved — from being mostly in person pre-pandemic (Work 1.0), to mostly virtual during the pandemic (Work 2.0), to now — a hybrid of both (Work 3.0). Download this report for 8 keys to leading in Work 3.0.

Related Solutions

About CCL

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)® is a top-ranked, global, nonprofit provider of leadership development and a pioneer in the field of global leadership research. We know from experience how transformative remarkable leaders really can be.

Over the past 50 years, we’ve worked with organizations of all sizes from around the world, including more than 2/3 of the Fortune 1000. Our hands-on development solutions are evidence-based and steeped in our work with hundreds of thousands of leaders at all levels.