In complex and ever-changing work environments, navigating paradoxes has become the differentiator for effective leadership. Leaders today need to become paradox navigators by embracing contradictions, resisting the urge to seek quick closure and shifting from an either-or to a both-and mindset.
It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” and was unwittingly alluding to what has become one of the most pervasive challenges for leaders today- managing the competing demands and paradoxes that organisations present them with.
A leadership paradox involves a situation in which both alternatives seem instinctive ‘right’ and yet at odds with each other. You only need to look around you to find examples of this – involve everyone’s inputs in the decision to be inclusive or take a call based on the information you have to operate fast, act on the needs of the organisation or the aspirations of the individual?
These are challenges without black-and-white answers and 5 or 7 step remedies. Many of us have grown up on a diet of contingency-based and situational theories of leadership, which tell us about the style that ‘works’ in a certain kind of situation. But the pace at which our environments are changing makes it very difficult to neatly fit situations into categories. Whether you are developing a new product or designing a marketing campaign, you are continuously switching between generating, implementing and learning from ideas. You constantly have new information flowing in which may challenge the original assumptions you made and redefine your understanding of the problem. Leading and working in teams that operate in such change and ambiguity requires donning multiple hats at the same time and a mindset that views the solution not as ‘either-or’, but as ‘both-and’. Dave Ulrich has called out navigating paradoxes as “the next wave in the evolution of leadership effectiveness.”
A lot has been written about paradoxes – most of it, focusing on the contexts that trigger them and the different types of competing demands that are created. Some recent research has focused specifically on the role of people leaders (people managers), especially frontline people leaders and the unique paradoxes in their roles. These are leaders who are often not directly involved in defining the strategy and, at the same time, are the one consistent face of the organisation to their teams in the midst of the evolving business direction and strategy.
What we know from research so far, is that paradoxes are undeniably integral to any organisational environment and that change, resource constraints and diversity are conditions that make them more prominent. We also know that as individuals or leaders, being faced with a paradox is likely to trigger anxiety and defence mechanisms.
E.g. convincing oneself that one alternative (say, need for business continuity) is currently more urgent and important to meet than the other (say, a team member’s aspiration or a role change) or avoiding/delaying the decision.
The logical question, then, is – what approaches can leaders adopt when faced with a specific paradox?
To answer this, it is important to first understand – What is the subjective experience of leaders faced with paradoxes? What are the unconscious fears, assumptions, barriers in our minds that hold us back from viewing both demands as connected, rather than competing?
For people leaders, the experience of paradoxes is reflected in specific themes unique to the decisions they need to face among the challenges faced by leaders through perspectives from employees as well as leaders. At the GE India Technology Centre, we engaged in an exercise to identify these themes and common approaches to navigate them, as part of our efforts on leadership transformation through an intervention called INSPIRE. Through conversations not only with people leaders themselves but also team members, we found themes that would resonate with most organisations that operate in the conditions of change, constraints and diverse teams/stakeholders.
They can be categorized assets of competing demands, including:
(i) Organisational Priorities and Employee Needs and Aspirations
(ii) Focus on the individual and focus on the collective team
(iii) Staying away (hands-off) and staying aware (hands-on), and
(iv) Competing and collaborating with internal (cross-functional) teams
For people leaders, learning to work through these competing demands or paradoxes is not about adopting a set of techniques or conventional training, but a deeper, more fundamental reflection on the beliefs that drive their behaviour – a breaking of the pattern in how they assimilate information, make meaning out of experiences and adapt to their environment.
Key to initiating this journey of pattern-breaking is a meaningful reflection on the question – what fears/barriers/assumptions are holding me back from leading effectively in uncertainty? We took this question as the basis of small group discussions in the form of meetups at our technology centre, by giving sets of people leaders real scenarios of paradoxes derived from the themes above. The emphasis was on resisting the temptation of ‘solution-seeking’ and instead, spending time understanding the fears and barriers that held them back from implementing solution which seemed theoretically obvious. This was facilitated by having some of the people managers don the hat of ‘employee’ and question the approaches suggested to the challenge in the case studies.
Discovering these fears or ‘what ifs’ proves insightful points that leaders could pause and reflect on when faced with similar situations, in the future. These ‘what ifs’ tend to generally revolve around leaders’ assumptions of what is expected out of their roles, what their teams expect from them and what the organisation expects from them.
As a leader, if I view my team’s expectation as a uniform treatment to everyone, I am likely to fear that my decision to implement a special incentive for selected key talent in the team is going to lead to comparisons and conflicts in the team. Similarly, if I view my role expectation as being able to influence desired outcomes (role changes, promotions, etc.) for the team at all times, I may fear the loss of credibility if I am unable to do so at some point. These fears are, more often than not, unconscious and unarticulated even to our own selves. Bringing them out into the open allows us to examine them critically and redefine our understanding of them.
Redefining the understanding of the expectations from the team, role and organisation can be done by playing out the scenario, testing out the fears to see for ourselves whether the consequences which we fear so much (e.g. loss of credibility) will actually occur and what we can do to mitigate it. As an example, a leader who has discovered that his/her discomfort with communicating an unfavourable decision to a team member (e.g. an opportunity not working out) is due to a fear of loss of credibility can first understand deeper from the team member about their reasons/motivations for the stated aspiration, be open about the constraints that he/she are operating in and jointly explore ways to broaden the current work to start providing scope to meet the aspiration.
Through the conversations we had with people leaders, as they identified their fears and assumptions, they were also able to articulate such takeaways in terms of points that they would make sure to pause and reflect on. The insights generated above are not only useful and applicable for leaders across organisations in responding to paradoxical tensions, but also provide broader implications for approaching leadership development through the lens of self-discovery: The first learning involves co-creation or creating safe spaces where leaders can learn from each other through open and unstructured conversations. The second is a focus beyond the symptoms (observable behaviour) to addressing the cause (underlying fears or assumptions).
The key to navigating uncertainty is often to pause and reflect on the deep-seated patterns of thinking that hold us back from doing what we theoretically know is the right solution.
The third is the integration of diverse experiences by collecting perspectives from employees, peers and leaders across businesses. The breadth of perspectives generated simply through conversations on how leaders approach similar situations in their own contexts provides a rich backdrop for thinking more broadly and holistically when faced with a paradox.
Most important, navigating these tensions is going to increasingly require a mindset of being comfortable with contradictions, resisting the urge to seek closure – a ‘both-and’ mindset. As Ronald Heifetz says in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, ‘Instead of looking for saviours, we should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that require us to learn new ways.’