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Are You Managing Paradox?
by Eric Garner


If you want to succeed at managing a team today, you have to know how to manage paradox.

According to the Chambers dictionary, a paradox is something that is apparently absurd but really true underneath.

To illustrate this, consider a survey of top UK companies carried out by the Department of Trade and Industry.

The survey found that the best-led companies were those that achieved a balance between seemingly contradictory opposites.

For example…

  • they developed people who were not just self-aware but also had excellent interpersonal skills.

  • their communications were not just outstanding on a vertical level but also on a horizontal level.

  • they had a clear structure that was also flexible.

Put another way, managing paradox is about managing opposites.

There’s nothing new about managing opposites, of course. It is one of the key philosophies of the Taoists of Ancient China and it’s summed up in the symbol of the Yin-Yang or two fishes’ heads in a circle. The two heads are opposites, the yin and yang forces. For example, yin is female and yang is male. The symmetry is not static. It is a continuous changing cycle of movement. The two dots of the fishes’ eyes represent the idea that each time one of the forces reaches its extreme, it already contains in itself the seed of its opposite.

For Taoists, as for modern managers, there is no one simple solution to the problems of developing people and a business. There is no simple answers, no “win-lose” that works, no “I’m right, you’re wrong” fixes.

Instead, managers must move freely from one pole to another, from one position to another, from one conviction to another, synthesizing, harmonizing, and balancing as they go.

And the way to do it is to manage paradoxes.

So here are 7 of the most frequently-met paradoxes in management today.

1. Individuals and Teams:

Individuals give of their best when they work in teams; teams succeed when each individual pulls their weight.

2. Success and Failure:

In order for people to succeed, you must first allow them to fail.

3. Work and Rest:

To produce their best work, people need to rest. Or as Indira Gandhi once said: “You must learn to be still in the midst of activity, and vibrantly alive in repose.”

4. Hard and Soft Skills:

You need both hard skills such as logical intelligence and soft skills such as emotional intelligence. Just as the skilled potter needs soft ways to mould the clay and hard ways to fire it.

5. Efficiency and Effectiveness:

The customer is best served when the organization is efficient; the organization is effective when it puts the customer first.

6. Control and Freedom:

People need controls to be free. Freedom can only be bought with restraints.

7. Change and Stability:

To change safely, we need a stable base. To find stability, we need to change ourselves often. Or as Alfred Whitehead put it: “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.”

Managing opposites and managing paradox turns management from a science into an art. It requires a different mindset from the management attitudes of old and with it a completely new set of skills. And old as the principles are, for many it is a new way of managing.

And that is a paradox in itself.


The Author

Eric Garner

Eric Garner is Managing Director of ManageTrainLearn, the site that will change the way you learn forever. Download free samples of the biggest range of management and personal development materials anywhere and experience learning like you always dreamed it could be.

Just click on and explore.

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2009 by Eric Garner. All rights reserved.

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