“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the ‘impossible,’ come true.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Many business leaders have had to make tough decisions this year, often finding themselves between a rock and a hard place – how do I take care of my people and take care of the business? How do I manage all the promises we’ve made and goals we’ve set with strained resources and more uncertainty than ever?
While 2020 may be a particularly challenging year, leaders often find themselves torn between priorities that are seemingly at odds with one another. As a rule, leadership will require you to manage paradoxes, though most organizations try to deny them. When there are two or more competing demands we think we have to make a choice: long-term results vs. short-term profitability. People vs. performance. Quality vs. cost. Customization vs. standardization.
Most organizations see paradoxes as a problem to be solved and end up wasting time, money and energy in attempts to “fix” the tension. Under pressure and in times of crisis, they will usually go completely in one direction, eventually swinging back the other way when circumstances demand it. In this reactive approach they fail to tie it all together and find a more sustainable answer.
When helping clients with these challenges, we suggest drawing a polarity grid as shown below, with the two opposing “forces” on the X-axis and the values (pros) and concerns (cons) for focusing on either one represented by the Y-axis.
The most critical part of managing paradox is getting clear on your purpose – what are these polarities meant to be in service of? Let’s go back to the example of balancing a culture of care with the need to preserve business performance. Caring for your people has great intentions, but what are we hoping it does for the organization? Business performance may be a given, but what is it specifically that we’re trying to achieve?
In companies that state “caring for our people” as a priority primarily for PR benefits, those leaders tend to do the most swinging between the polarities: we’ll take care of our people when it’s convenient and good for business, but it falls down the list when we need to manage business performance. The two are seen as promises that conflict, rather than two ideals that service a common goal. Maybe what’s most important to the organization is creating a more sustainable business model, and employee engagement and retention have been identified as important leverage points, along with cost management and increased efficiency.
By identifying the greater purpose of what we’re trying to achieve together, we are better set up to find an intersection between the two forces. Rather than seeing everything in black and white, we can look at where the two overlap. What if there’s a way to increase employee engagement that also increases efficiency?
It’s also critical to have clear definitions for each competing priority. Going back to our example, how does our organization define “care”? Business leaders may look at employee retention rates, but employees may think the measure is their personal happiness and satisfaction. Are we caring for the individual, or are we caring for the community?
Let’s say we're committed to “creating a thriving community that offers opportunities to contribute in ways that sustain financial performance over the long-term.” What does it mean to create a “thriving community”? One might argue that it isn’t just about being nicer, it's about doing what's right for the community, which will very often overlap with the needs of the business. A certain level of business success is necessary to even have a community in the first place!
So maybe you have a set of community commitments that serve as your decision criteria. Times of crisis will put those commitments to the test, but the important thing is that you commit to evolving what they mean in practice, staying connected to purpose through it all. Being communicative in these times is crucial so invite your people into the conversation, which can itself be an act of care.
It’s important to have your priorities clearly defined so that everyone is aligned in the good times and the bad, which takes care of a great deal of potential conflict and tension all on its own.
Once you have your grid filled out, your definitions in place and your purpose clear, have a conversation that starts with the question, “what is it time for now?” Bring all of your current circumstances to the table and look at them within the framework you’ve created. What is currently impacting your ability to support either priority? What are the costs and benefits for focusing on one or the other? What concerns are there that need to be addressed?
Paradoxes are excellent engines for innovation. When we can hold this tension long enough, grounded in the purpose we’re looking to serve and fully aware of what we know right now, a new way forward can emerge that we otherwise never would have imagined.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that this is in no way a simple or easy thing to manage. An innovative idea that meets all our needs and solves all our problems would be wonderful, but it won’t always turn out that way. If we look at this year, the tension between caring for our people and helping our businesses survive a series of economic and social crises has been a top challenge for many leaders. While some companies were able to avoid layoffs through pay cuts and other solutions, many didn’t have another option.
Balancing the paradox doesn’t mean you’ll find a comfortable middle ground. Sometimes it simply means staying authentic through extremely difficult decisions and conversations. Is it possible to care for your people even when you’re separating from them? They may not all be happy with you, but you can uphold your commitment to care for the community through the process by being honest and staying connected to what matters to them during this time, and then doing everything within your means to meet those needs. Go back to those community commitments – how do these apply even now as our community is in transition?
Our world is increasingly dynamic, uncertainty is a given and if we’ve learned anything this year it’s that unforeseen circumstances will come our way. To effectively balance a paradox over time, you need to set up processes for evolving your approach. We recommend setting up regular cycles for reviewing and adjusting and a standard protocol for doing so.
To stay awake to when the balance gets disrupted, we also recommend identifying a few “red flags” – early warning signs that you need to refocus and realign. These flags should then be built into the company dashboard, so that they’re reviewed just like any other business performance metric.
Most companies know if the P&L isn’t meeting projections, but do you have any early warning signs that your culture is going off-track? Ways to tell when company behavior is out of alignment with who you’re trying to be as a business? What might be the first sign that you’ve been overfocusing on finances and neglecting your people?
Organizations don’t often have reliable measures for the culture they want to create. It’s a tricky thing to assess, but it’s much easier to come up with indicators if you have that clear definition in place. What are the characteristics of our caring culture that would show symptoms of neglect? The answer could be as discrete as leadership feeling uneasy about the ethics of a new business practice or as measurable as rising absenteeism. Whether it’s quantifiable or qualitative, the important thing is getting everyone on the same page about what you’re paying attention to and what meaning you’re ascribing to it.
When a red flag does show up you then have to be reliable for having a conversation about it, going back to that question, “what is it time for now?” This is a continuous and dynamic process, and we believe that managing paradox requires authentic conversations – raising issues, exploring different perspectives, becoming aware of the purposes and concerns of others. We often like to say that “we are smarter together than we are apart,” and that is especially true when it comes to resolving complex challenges. It truly is a team sport.
Managing paradox is a non-negotiable part of leadership. While challenging, they are excellent opportunities for discovering new ways of working and getting creative about what’s possible. If you build it into how you do business, stay present to purpose and catch things early on, it will quickly become a normal and reliable part of caring for your organization.