Paradoxical Thinking: Maintaining Stability in Changing Environments
Paradoxical Thinking: Maintaining Stability in Changing Environments
Post-recession business trends show companies that survive and continue to develop; apply agile business models that respond quickly to external change. Traditionally linear approaches to problem solving such rational goals models or “cause and effect” thinking were standard in the workplace during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Is “cause and effect” thinking going to generate the type of results needed to survive with today’s post-recession business dynamics? Complexities of the workplace today require Master Managers to think both creatively and critically to drive results. When leadership applies paradoxical thinking supported by the Competing Values Framework, organizations have opportunities to thrive.
Introduction / Definition
Change and flexibility are seen as essential components of successful organizations in turbulent environments with strong competition and may be even more important in times of tumultuous crises. Organizations need to run fast to keep up with the numerous and intensive changes taking place in their environments (Steinkellner and Czerny, 2010) Post-recession business trends prove that companies that survive, develop, and grow use agile business models that respond quickly to external changes. Traditionally linear approaches to problem solving such rational goals models or “cause and effect” thinking were standard in the workplace in the first 25 years of the twentieth century. Is this approach the most effective use of management’s resources today? Complexities of the workplace require Master Managers to think both creatively and critically to drive results. Paradoxical thinking is the ability to reverse, manipulate, combine, and synthesize opposites” (Ravi, n.d.).
What exactly is a paradoxical thinking? It’s the act of considering two seemingly inconsistent or contradictory concepts then harnessing the opposing forces to produce new possibilities. Paradoxical thinking, if applied effectively, can produce innovative solutions to meet and possibly exceed organizational goals. While organizational leaders are expected to stabilize systems, they are also challenged to adjust the existing structural arrangements and patterned behaviors and to ask frame-breaking questions. Managers must send consistent messages and align strategy with structure, but must never allow the organization to settle into complacency. As soon as “balance” is achieved, it must be destroyed. Managers must have the cognitive complexity and behavioral flexibility that will allow them to shift from one paradigm to another and thus to effectively manage paradoxes and optimize performance (Belasen, 1998).
For example, managers want their organizations to be flexible and adaptive, yet integrated and stable. They want higher internal efficiency and profitability and also higher employee commitment and morale. The art of managing and leading organizations today lies in embracing incompatible forces, rather than choosing between them. (Belasen,1998). The Competing Values Framework (CVF) is a powerful integrative model that is rooted in the contradictory criteria of effectiveness that describe managerial leadership. Hence, mapping out the repertoire of leadership roles essential to dealing with paradoxes, and assessing and developing requisite managerial competencies are important strategic human resource goals. Assessing current managerial competencies and future organizational needs is an important strategic staffing function that can enable top managers to align organizational capabilities with business strategy. The CVF is a powerful theoretical construct with applications that feature supervisory roles and competencies, (Quinn, R. E., Faerman, S. R., Thompson, M. P., and McGrath, M. R., 1996).
Example of a company that demonstrates paradoxical thinking
I work for a global biotech company that develops rapid point-of-care diagnostics. Their products focus on cardiology, infectious disease, toxicology and diabetes. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) audited the company. The FDA found Quality system violations in manufacturing and issued the company a warning letter. In response to this external threat, the company’s leadership went full throttle to defend the organization. During the most intense parts of our remediation efforts, the experience seemed chaotic, however with the new understanding of paradoxical thinking, its clear to me that leadership’s directives were strategically managed. “Cause and effect” thinking was not complex enough to respond to the FDA’s demands. The work climate internally was intense as we closely followed leadership’s vision. Our organizational shift moved from mainly a Compete quadrant focus, to integrating all four quadrants of the Competing Values Framework (Collaborate, Control, Compete and Create).
Most of our energy was understandably was expended between the Control and Create quadrants. The company’s management energized employees as new cross-functional teams emerged and strove to deliver on new internal and external campaigns to unify us globally. Leadership developed and effectively communicated a new vision framed around shared values of meeting the FDA’s requests, responding to the letter, and releasing quality product back on the market to the patients that needed them. The new shared-vision helped everyone focus on the new, while paradoxically repairing the old. Old processes were scrutinized, evaluated, challenged, and re-evaluated. We had to maintain control of what we were doing correctly while paradoxically implementing new changes. Management also dealt with the economic paradox of not being able to sell viable product while needing to spend on hiring new talent to research, repair, and remediate the findings in the warning letter.
Although the company is still recovering, new internal processes for validating the manufacturing line were eventually implemented and product returned to market. Organizational change, obviously, is often imperative in response to emerging customer demands, new regulations, and fresh competitive threats. But constant or sudden change is unsettling and destabilizing for companies and individuals alike. Just as human beings tend to freeze when confronted with too many new things in their lives—a divorce, a house move, and a change of job, for example—so will organizations overwhelmed by change resist and frustrate transformation-minded chief executives set on radically overturning the established order (Price, 2012).
Can one learn paradoxical thinking?
Yes, as long as one is open to change and committed to learning new ways of thinking. Embracing the paradoxes can be uncomfortable: it’s counterintuitive to stimulate change by focusing on boundaries and control when a company wants to stir up new ideas. Yet the act of trying to reconcile these tensions helps leaders keep their eyes on all their spinning plates and identify when interventions are needed to keep the organization lined up with its top priorities (Price, 2012). Acceptance involves viewing both sides of competing demands as simultaneously possible, even if they are inherently in conflict. By accepting paradoxical demands, leaders recognize them as an opportunity and “invitation to act,” rather than as an obstacle (Smith, W.K., Besharov, M.L., Anke, Wessels, A.K., Chertok, M., A, 2012).
Paradoxical thinking as a skill related to intelligence. Why is it least used? Paradoxical thinking breaks norms and pushes the limits of complex reasoning and logic. Being able to integrate opposing lines of reasoning to synthesize one common result is a high art. Paradoxical thinking is counter-intuitive and results of this thinking bring change. Barriers to change include fear of mistakes or failure, intolerance of ambiguity, judging or being judged.
How management and leadership can utilize paradoxical thinking to improve the organization Once management has determined how to apply paradoxical thinking, a shared vision needs to be created and conveyed to the organization to give employees a path to follow to reach collective goals. Once individuals grasp a common picture of a desired future everyone can move towards that improved future-state in unison. A shared vision is “a vision that many people are truly committed to, because it reflects their own personal vision. Shared vision is vital for learning organizations because it provides the focus and energy for learning.” (Senge, 1990). Within the Competitive Values Framework, management can take the opportunity to improve the organization by motivating employees, engaging them in new activities to improve performance and reward them for contributions to change. Leadership can re-structure and revise business process for improved outcomes for customers’ products and services. Paradoxical thinking can literally re-invent the organization to compete in the modern economy.
Leadership must cope with the paradoxical relationship between stability and change to improve the organizations. Conventional management’s approach to paradox are characterized “by tendencies which encourage polarized, black/white, good/bad thinking”. From an analytical perspective four different modes to cope with the paradoxical relationship between stability and change can be found to (1) accept the paradox, keep stability and change separate and use the paradox constructively, (2) separate the poles of the paradox to different locations or levels, (3) temporally separate stability and change, and (4) advance new conceptions through introducing new concepts or a new perspective.
Compared with traditional modes, the paradox of stability and change may intertwine and instead of negating and displacing one another, they can mutually reinforce each other in a process of renewal (Steinkellner, P.F., and Czerny, E. J., 2010).
“Cause and effect” thinking hinders mastery as it’s linear approach is not complex enough to delve into the dynamics of today’s organizational environments. Using paradoxical thinking one can taking two seemingly inconsistent or contradictory concepts then harnessing the opposing forces to possibly exceed organizational goals. Placing paradoxical thinking into the Competing Values Framework gives organizations the opportunity to explore new alternatives and innovate. Innovation is the key to growth in the business environment.
Belasen, A. T., 1998, Paradoxes and Leadership Roles. Retrieved from
Price, C., 2012, Senior executives will better balance people and priorities by embracing the paradoxes of organizational life. Retrieved from
Quinn, R. E., Faerman, S. R., Thompson, M. P., and McGrath, M. R., 1996, Becoming a master manager: A competency framework. Retrieved from http://www8.esc.edu/ESConline/across_esc/forumjournal.nsf/wholeshortlinks2/Leadership+Roles
Ravi, K. R., Paradoxical Thinking. Retrieved from
Senge, P., The Learning Organization. 1990 Retrieved from
Smith, W.K., Besharov, M.L., Anke, Wessels, A.K., Chertok, M., A Paradoxical
Leadership Model for Social Entrepreneurs: Challenges, Leadership Skills,
and Pedagogical Tools for Managing Social and Commercial Demands. Retrieved from
Steinkellner, P.F., and Czerny, E. J., 2010, Educating Managers for a Paradox World –
Duality and Paradoxes in Management. Retrieved from