By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization
Paradox occurs when seemingly contradictory issues complement each other (e.g., less is more, the beginning of the end, the more you give the more you get, the only constant is change, tough love, etc.). Navigating paradox (sometimes called competing values, dialectics, duality, or polarity management) leads to innovative insights, agility and change, employee enthusiasm, and investor confidence.
In the post-pandemic era, business leaders have been encouraged to navigate paradoxes such as strategic executor, humble hero, tech-savvy humanist, traditional innovator, high-integrity politician, and globally-minded localist.
The personal competence of navigating paradox has been a leading predictor of both business and HR leader effectiveness in both ours and others’ research for the last decade. In our recent HR Competency Study (HRCS) research, we identified five competence domains (see figure) for effective HR professionals, each of which require paradox navigation (see table for thirteen paradoxes in these five domains).
Let me suggest a six-step process to navigate the paradoxes for each of the five domains and deliver more value. The table includes a visual of this process as well.
1. Appreciate the value of paradox and prioritize the paradoxes most relevant to your organization.
Recognize that when you navigate paradox, you increase innovation, enable agility and change, and value divergence. From the table below, you can select the two to four top priority paradoxes most relevant to your organization by rating the thirteen paradoxes: identify those most important for your organization to be effective in the marketplace and that you do not currently do very well. For example, a number of organizations are exploring hybrid work (the first paradox in the table) as a way to accelerate business. If hybrid work increases the organization’s opportunities in the market and is not currently being done very well, it could be a priority paradox. (I will continue to use this paradox as an example throughout the six steps.)
2. Identify polarities.
For the priority paradoxes, identify the polarities or the guardrails on each side of the paradox. Stating the polarities helps clarify the range of action that could occur. Make sure that these anchors are not stated as one being better than another but as two alternative ways to approach a challenge. The table offers examples of anchors for each of the thirteen paradoxes. For hybrid work, the polarities are working remotely (likely from home) versus working collectively (likely in a shared office space).
3. Recognize the current state.
Inevitably, leaders, and the organization itself, have a predisposition towards one polarity or the other. Using the table, leaders can share their biases on the priority paradox: do they lean to the left anchor (C, B, or A) or to the right anchor (1, 2, or 3). This current state assessment can be done for individuals and/or for the organization as a whole. Knowing one’s predisposition allows for insight to occur. For example, in regard to the hybrid paradox, individual leaders can state their preference for working independently (C, B, or A) or working collectively (1, 2, or 3). These individual assessments can be combined to create an organizational predisposition to hybrid work.
4. Understand the other point of view.
A key to paradox navigation is respecting others’ perspectives even if you disagree. To generate such understanding, have someone who strongly believes in one anchor (e.g., a C on individual focus in hybrid work) explain the rationale for the other anchor (e.g., a 1 on collective focus in hybrid work) and vice versa until each perspective can articulate the other’s point-of-view. This mutual understanding does not mean agreement, but it allows for respectful exploration of alternative ideas. New ideas often emerge out of this dialogue of stating the other’s point-of-view.
5. Find common ground.
Generally, while two sides may have differing views, they can often find common ground that leads to innovative solutions. A discussion of hybrid work might lead to a more nuanced approach to “personalizing” work by determining which tasks are best done individually (at home) versus together (at the office) or finding a shared solution that helps both those who tend to one polarity or the other. Often common ground focuses on transcendent values that most share (e.g., “We want each employee to contribute to the best of his or her ability).
6. Take responsible action.
After we define our paradoxes, transparently discuss them, and determine common ground, respectful actions can follow. These actions do not necessarily mean agreement; disagreement can exist without being disagreeable, or tension can exist without contention. In a hybrid work setting, an employee may personally prefer to work at home yet still recognize and be responsible for learning to work collectively in an office setting.
These six steps to paradox navigation are neither magical nor easy, but by pursuing them, we navigate the ultimate paradox of divergence and convergence so that our people and organizations prosper.
Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and a partner at The RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value.