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

Paradoxes — also described as dilemmas, conundrums, polarity, competing values or contradiction — seem to defy common sense and business acumen. They can be overwhelming, difficult to understand, 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).

Helping individuals understand the impact of paradoxes on their effectiveness is a competency CCL has been developing through research and training.

And the research is clear: Organizations, leaders, teams and individuals that manage paradox are better performers than those who do not.

A new white paper from Jean Brittain Leslie, Peter Ping Li, and Sophia Zhao — Managing Paradox: Blending East and West Philosophies to Unlock Its Advantages and Opportunities — offers 2 tools to help you and your organization better understand and manage paradoxes.

The ability to manage paradoxes begins with understanding the nature of paradox. It is not easy to do; it is often difficult to see the presence of paradoxes in organizational life and in a fast-changing, complex world. Paradoxes have these characteristics, or principles, in common:

  • They are not problems that can be solved, as they are unsolvable.
  • They are of cyclical or recurring nature.
  • They can polarize individuals into groups.
  • They are potentially positive when managed.
  • Managing paradox involves developing a mindset beyond either/or logic (A is either B or not B).

To Understand Paradox, Map It: 2 Techniques

Common business models and tools are not very useful in managing paradoxes. Instead, CCL suggests mapping paradoxes through Polarity Mapping, a concept developed by Barry Johnson, and Duality Mapping, a new approach developed by CCL.

Polarity Mapping is a user-friendly framework distinguishable for its symbolic representation of the why, what and how to take advantage of paradox. Barry Johnson, author of Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, and founder of Polarity Partnerships LLC., introduced the map in 1975 as a means for exploring tensions, reinforcing cycles and the potential for leveraging paradox.

Polarity mapping articulates two “poles” that are competing or at odds, looks at the potential positive results as well as the negatives, drawbacks or fears related to over-emphasizing one or the other. It steers managers and organizations to think about the larger value, or purpose, of balancing the polarities, as well as to determine specific action steps.

Yin-Yang-Symbol-for webDuality Mapping draws on the concept of yin and yang. Yin and yang in the Chinese classical philosophy originates from two 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 two opposite elements that are partially conflicting and partially complementary.

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 two 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 you handle the tension and conflict around conflicting demands? What is your organization doing to cultivate a paradoxical mindset?

See Managing Paradox: Blending East and West Philosophies to Unlock Its Advantages and Opportunities for more insights and ideas.

2 thoughts on “How to Manage Paradox

  1. Very interesting research. It’s high time we took a look at blending Eastern and Westen philosophy with regard management and lifestyle dilemmas. The contexts may differ but handling the problems of what to do when and how are not unique to either one.

  2. Very interesting research. It’s high time we took a look at blending Eastern and Westen philosophy with regard management and lifestyle dilemmas. The contexts may differ but handling the problems of what to do when and how are not unique to either one.

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