Many of us would have encountered the intentionally blank page paradox in official documents where the text ‘This page has been intentionally left blank’ annihilates its status as a blank page. Biologist Richard Peto noticed that mice had a much higher rate of cancer than humans which doesn’t make sense. Cancer is a rogue cell that goes on multiplying without control and humans have over 1000 times more cells than mice. Thus, logically humans should get more cancer than smaller sized mice. This is termed as Peto’s Paradox. ‘Could an all-powerful being create a stone so heavy that even ‘he’ couldn’t lift it?’ is the question posed by the Omnipotence Paradox. While some of these are amusing, provokes thinking and research, paradoxes related to people management in organization settings unveil a different genre of emotional complexity.
A paradox is a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true. We live in a world of contradictions. While managing people, leaders inevitably confront contradictions and resulting tensions. While hiring into the team the leader is faced with the choice of prioritizing proven credentials versus taking a bet on someone who brings in a different dimension or in other words playing safe versus being bold and opportunistic. A leader who was setting up a start-up a couple of years ago was vehement on paying whatever it takes to hire the right talent. He shared more recently his need now to balance between an ‘all-out’ compensation while hiring and being fair to existing members in the team. Organizations drive uniformity on one side enabling fairness and transparency and yet expect managers to value individual differences and make exceptions.
Eastern cultures and mindsets suggest that societies and organizations naturally embrace opposites. Rather than being ‘either-or’, even problems and challenges are interrelated as ‘both-and’. A totality evolves through a harmonious and interdependent co-existence of opposites. The ‘loose-tight’ principle for example reflects a paradox of control versus autonomy, suggesting that managers should have tight rules for the long term, but also be willing to bend them in the here and now. Leaders similarly are required to demonstrate ‘both-and’ in situations combining self-centeredness with other centeredness; maintaining control on decisions, while allowing autonomy; enforcing work needs, while allowing flexibility, sustaining a culture of transparency while ensuring confidentiality through a need to know only.
Holding two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values at the same time or being confronted with information that conflicts with exiting beliefs, ideas or values triggers mental stress termed as cognitive dissonance. The natural reaction is to reduce the dissonance or inconsistency and also avoid information and situations that would enhance it. Quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’ This is not easy. We all have heard about the ‘blind men and the elephant’. Even if these men were not blind but were limited in their focus to only a part of the elephant, their interpretations would be similar – the tail as rope, the tusks as spears, the ears as fans and legs as trees. This approach of thinking is analytical or partial thinking where the mind builds understanding by focusing on the parts of a system. In contrast to this Holistic thinking drives us into sensing large-scale patterns involving content and background information. The ability that Fitzgerald highlights requires holistic thinking.
Holistic thinking leaders are able to leverage ‘both-and’ and view both aspects of the paradox as possible. They are able to accept the contradictions and their co-existence. For paradoxes in people management such leaders are able to balance between organizational needs and subordinate expectations. A leader for example can on one side maintain power and status distance to ensure pressure and focus to get work delivered and at the same time stay close to subordinates, being available to help them and ensuring that they succeed. Similarly, a holistic thinking leader is able to bring the team into play in conversations and help create an inclusive approach to ideation and debate, but at the same time ensure control on decision making and thereby drive closures.
As a leader role models such paradoxical leader behaviour, it has a distinct impact on the capabilities and performance of the team. Subordinates demonstrate how to embrace contradictions in complex real-time environments. They become more open-minded to different possibilities by expanding their holistic thinking. Such teams also have higher adaptive behaviour and learning agility to cope with change and transformation. Rather than be rule-keepers such teams have higher risk taking and fail fast mindset. Team members can leverage their individuality with a higher degree of confidence. Holistic thinking is taxing on leaders too as they have to deal with the stress of contradiction in their minds. It is thus very important to see that the demonstration of holistic thinking is consistent and sustainable. That provides the right signal and motivation to the team.
As organizations and individuals work though higher levels of uncertainty and unknown, with an ever-increasing pace of response, abilities of leaders and their teams to deal with paradoxical thinking on competing possibilities will be a true differentiator and create readiness to function on a global scale.