Paradoxical leader behaviours - New podcast - Episode 9

Paradoxical leader behaviours – New podcast – Episode 9

Organisational Success Podcast



Today’s organisations are increasingly facing environments characterised by complexity, volatility and uncertainty, placing extra demands on leaders to adopt holistic thinking approaches in order to meet organisational and individual needs. Leadership approaches are shifting, and organisations arguably require even more creativity than before.

In this podcast Sarah and David explore a new study which has explored the impact of a new theory of leadership known as paradoxical leadership behaviour. Paradoxical leadership behaviour focusses on levels of ‘thriving at work’ (employee vitality and learning) and psychological safety (employee perception of safety to express own views without negative consequences), and their influence on employee creativity.

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Transcript – paradoxical leadership behaviours

Sarah:                           00:00                Recently about paradoxical leader, leadership behavior. So it’s a really interesting new concept about looking at the way in which leaders need to engage in managing dialectical tension, or conflicting demands. So the individual needs of the individuals in the organization combined with managing the organizational needs, and demands, and how you manage that kind of sometimes contradictory tension that arises through both what they call both/and behaviors. So, for example, so they have … and in the paper it outlines, I think it’s five different key dimensions of both/and behaviors that this particular theory of leadership proposes.

Sarah:                           00:47                So, one of them for example would be, building close relationships with individuals that you lead, and being able to step back and maintain a distance perspective. One of it is about creating autonomy and freedom, and another is about being able to create clear boundaries and kind of tight rules, and frameworks within which, kind of, freedom happens.

David:                           01:10                Be free, within these bounds.

Sarah:                           01:11                Yes, yeah, yeah. Which reminded me of when I was reading it, the organization over in the States, that [inaudible 00:01:23] Joy Inc, about Menlo Innovations.

David:                           01:25                Oh yes.

Sarah:                           01:27                I forgotten, – [inaudible 00:01:28]

David:                           01:28                Yeah me too.

Sarah:                           01:29                They talk about innovation, and they even use the word tyranny, which I find really interesting. It’s this idea that there are actually a handful, two, or three rules that we are kind of tyrannical, if you like, about. But there are kind of, real things that absolutely everybody who comes here to work for follows. And then within that there’s an enormous space for freedom creativity. So how do you manage both of these? And the interesting bit about this model, so this paper comes from some work that was done in China.

Sarah:                           02:00                And it’s one of the things that they advocate is how western theories of leadership, perhaps propose particular ways of working. But when you combine that with Chinese principles dialectical principles like yin and yang. Looking at how there’s a synergy between those, and if you integrate some of these obscurantly conflicting behaviors. And the bit that was particularly interesting as well in this paper, so aside from the bit that hooked me straight in, I think about just the idea of thinking about paradox from a leadership framework, was that they were looking at its impact on creativity. And did paradoxical leader behavior influence the employee context? So did it, was it possible to use paradoxical leader behaviors and create context where employees thrive at work. So there’s lots of learning there’s energy, peoples strengths are aligned, those sorts of things. And with psychologically safe environments, and have enhanced, or increased creative output. What effects did paradoxical leader behavior have in that mix if you like.

David:                           03:16                So can I just check what you’re talking about here in terms of paradoxical leadership. Does that mean allowing the paradoxes to exist, noticing them.

Sarah:                           03:25                Mm-hmm (affirmative). So noticing them, [crosstalk 00:03:27] and then integrating them. So what it talks about is not, so that it’s not about needing to … so this tension perhaps some people have where they … I guess the whole first thing is about recognizing them in the first place, but that once you recognize them, it’s not then rushing to resolve them, and what might be a more typical process, people rush to resolve them by, they do, one, you know that classic pendulum swing, so yeah we’ll focus now on this, and then when I think that’s too much, now I swing over here, so they kind of yo-yoing.

David:                           04:03                They’re working on the poles.

Sarah:                           04:05                Yes, yes.

David:                           04:06                Without any kind of strategy between them.

Sarah:                           04:08                No, exactly. And this was about saying, actually if you acknowledge that the both things can coexist, so there is an aspect I guess of what contingent way of seeing leadership, so you know in this situation here and now, what is the right thing to be doing, to the right degree, for these people. So using what you, and I might call, kind of, wise thinking, or wise judgment, with regards to that situation, and seeing those things as compatible.

David:                           04:39                How interesting.

Sarah:                           04:41                Yeah.

David:                           04:43                There was a study that we did a briefing on last year which was about paradox –

Sarah:                           04:48                Okay.

David:                           04:50                And about how we’re not very good with paradoxes and what’s interesting about what you’re saying is it’s kind of suggesting that a more eastern philosophical [inaudible 00:05:02], I suppose, is probably more likely to A, recognize the paradoxes and then B, be able to do something, you’re talking about integration, we’ll come back to that in a minute. And this study was quite interesting. It was based in Finland.

Sarah:                           05:19                Okay.

David:                           05:19                And it was looking at how Finland dealt with the post 2008 crash. And what happened was that the government set up a series of paradoxical requirements on a whole series of services and things. And one of those services was the police. So what it did that the government said, right okay, time of austerity, we need to, kind of, cut back on all sorts of things. We need to reduce costs. One of the ways we want to do that with the police is start to standardize a lot of the things that we’re doing. So we want you all to buy the same uniform, we want to flatten the management a bit. There’s 40 something forces across Finland, we want them to be one force so that this kind of economies of scale rather than having all these different management hierarchies, that we’ve got one.

David:                           06:13                And basically that’s what it was saying, so they were saying we want you to standardize. One side of the paradox, the other side of the paradox is they also recognized that policing in somewhere like Helsinki is very different to policing in the Arctic Circle in some village. So they said at the same time we want you to standardize, and we want you to make sure that you’re meeting local need. When you think about it you go, well hang on a minute. What was interesting was, nobody in that line, either through the government, or the police went hold on a minute, this is a paradox.

Sarah:                           06:48                Okay.

David:                           06:48                We can’t do both.

Sarah:                           06:49                Okay.

David:                           06:50                At the same time.

Sarah:                           06:51                Yes.

David:                           06:51                And it’s exactly what they found happened was that they swung. So the organizations did what they were good at, which was okay, we understand how to standardize everything. We understand how to flatten the structure. We understand … So they spent the vast majority of the time standardizing, and then every now and again there’d be this panic about ah, but how do we do this, in this town, or in this context. And then they’d try to unstandardize what they’d done previously. So they ended up with this real mismatch.

Sarah:                           07:25                Confusion isn’t it.

David:                           07:27                Complete confusion. And it didn’t solve any of the problems.

Sarah:                           07:29                Yes.

David:                           07:29                Apart from, they cut some costs out of it. But actually it ended up in a situation where the service was worse because of that –

Sarah:                           07:36                I was going to say, it probably created new, and different problems rather than –

David:                           07:40                So what I’m interested in then, is what do they mean by integrate?

Sarah:                           07:43                Say, so it’s about … so they talk about in the paper, that they coin this term kind of paradoxical thinking. And they describe that as the ability to be able to differentiate more finely and then integrate on the back of the differentiation.

David:                           08:02                Right.

Sarah:                           08:03                So the whole recognition of the paradox would be a key part of that. And to therefore be able to use not just the recognition of the paradox, but the recognition of, in this situation, the local needs seem paramount, and I can bear that in mind at the same time, so I can recognize the difference between those conflicting demands and I can integrate those on the back of what is the most important thing to be doing –

David:                           08:31                Right here, right now.

Sarah:                           08:32                Right here, right now.

David:                           08:33                Got ya.

Sarah:                           08:33                Bearing in mind our overall purpose as a police force, for example. So you’re still keeping –

David:                           08:37                Keeping in mind the paradox.

Sarah:                           08:37                Yes.

David:                           08:39                Yeah.

Sarah:                           08:39                Yes, and the sense of what the bigger purpose or direction is. That kind of overall focus. But I got a lot of flexibility, and agility within that.

David:                           08:54                Right, and so was there something in the paper then about, kind of, eastern philosophy, eastern thinking?

Sarah:                           09:01                They didn’t jump into it that much. It was enough that it made me think, oh, I want to go and delve into this more. And I’ve been meaning to kind of dig out some of the … the first paper where this term is coined, where they propose this theory of paradoxical leadership. And I haven’t dug that paper out as yet [crosstalk 00:09:17]and had a bit of a look at it.

David:                           09:20                Yeah, I got the same reaction after this, the Finnish police one –

Sarah:                           09:24                Yes.

David:                           09:24                Was I started to wonder about the psychology of paradox.

Sarah:                           09:27                Yes.

David:                           09:28                And how being in a paradox affected people. It affected their emotionally, and it affected their thinking.

Sarah:                           09:37                Yeah.

David:                           09:37                And it’s probably something that would be a good idea for us to do, especially forward on.

Sarah:                           09:42                Yeah, it would be. I think it’s –

David:                           09:45                I think it’s critical actually.

Sarah:                           09:45                Yeah, and I’m seeing it proper, in lots of different areas of research, and fields of practice. So it’s cropping up more, and more I think, around leadership, and leader behaviors. But also in terms of things like creativity, and innovation. Organizational culture, and emotion regulation, um, dealing with uncertainty, and some of the stuff about leadership 4.0, and what kind new demands are in leadership, and paradox.

David:                           10:17                Yes.

Sarah:                           10:17                Seems, maybe I’m seeing it everywhere, ’cause it’s fascinating me, [crosstalk 00:10:22] so I’m seeing it everywhere, but it does appear to be. [crosstalk 00:10:26]

David:                           10:28                When I started, particularly started the research on the uncertainty stuff, kind of paradoxes kept on cropping up –

Sarah:                           10:34                Okay.

David:                           10:34                And I never really quite, kind of, clobbered them. The one thing that I did become aware of is that the people who are good with uncertainty tended to be good at managing paradoxes.

Sarah:                           10:46                Yes.

David:                           10:46                And it seemed to be, partly it seemed to be, that ability to be able to keep in mind at all times a paradox. And it was almost like a balance to be able to say okay in this situation we’re going to, kind of, deal this side of the paradox, and this side we’re gonna deal with this like. But in these context, actually we may be able to find a balance here. And there is, kind of, an idea, that this idea of modeful leaders, these people are really good with uncertainty, they’re very good at kind of facilitating other people and, kind of, dealing … finding what the reality of the situation is. They spend a lot of time doing that, kind of –

Sarah:                           11:28                Yes.

David:                           11:28                You know what’s really happening here. Not what I think is happening. But trying to find evidence that doesn’t support that thinking.

Sarah:                           11:36                Yes.

David:                           11:36                That kind of … and that’s paradoxical in its way.

Sarah:                           11:39                Yes, yeah.

David:                           11:40                In its own way.

Sarah:                           11:40                Yeah.

David:                           11:40                So there was that, kind of, sense that these people are managing paradoxes quite mindfully, I suppose. And so what were the other finding of this paper?

Sarah:                           11:52                Well, so the interesting thing with the paper was, and one of the reasons that it perhaps … so another reason it particularly hooked me was … This was a different paper that I was reading [crosstalk 00:12:01] but in this other paper they were talking about, so they we’re looking at Winston, and leaders that scored quite high on wisdom, and wise reasoning and they were also looking at traits of psychopathy, and they were looking at [crosstalk 00:12:19] so some of the dark triad –

David:                           12:20                Yeah, the dark triad.

Sarah:                           12:22                The dark triad traits around leadership behavior. And one of the things that this paper found was that there were certain overlapping traits … so I’ll back track a little bit. So the other thing that they were also looking at was transformational leadership.

Sarah:                           12:41                So they’re looking at wisdom in leadership, transformational leadership, and dark triad. And they were looking at where were the overlaps. And where might there be similarities between some of those different areas, and what they identified was that the whole dimension within wisdom … so wisdom, and transformational leadership seem to map across quite neatly in lots of different areas. The bit that was really interesting was the dimension, and wisdom around dealing with uncertainty, and being able to embrace paradox. Recognize, and embrace paradox. And the bit that was really interesting about that was, was that people that scored high on that in the wisdom scale, did not score so high, and remember it was in this particular study, it was employees who were rating transformational leadership –

David:                           13:33                Okay.

Sarah:                           13:34                And if um, criteria for their leaders. So they were not rated particularly high on transformational leadership by their employees. But they were rated higher in the dark triad. So there seemed to be something in the paper, I’m not explaining it very well, but there was something –

David:                           13:52                No, that’s intriguing.

Sarah:                           13:54                In the paper. I need to dig the paper back out again, to kind of, get the specifics of it. But what there seemed to be a suggestion of was that the ability to embrace uncertainty and recognize and deal with paradox was associated with dark triad type characteristics.

David:                           14:10                Interesting as well.

Sarah:                           14:11                When you look at one of the sub scales of the dark triad, the dark triad subsets –

David:                           14:15                That is interesting.

Sarah:                           14:16                And was considered to be a negative aspect by the employees. So the reason that was so interesting to me when I came to this paper was, because this paper was saying, so when a leader is able to embrace uncertainty and deal with paradox actually what is the effect of that on employees. ’cause the suggestion of the paper was that there could be some issues around that. In that employees want certainty, they want assurances, they want clarity of way forward, you know, they want their leaders to strip out paradox, and uncertainty, and where leaders were very good at recognizing that. Actually that, the scene is on sectioning, that’s my words, that’s not what the papers suggesting. But this paper, what hooked me particularly about it was that where the leaders demonstrated high levels of paradoxical leader behavior they were also creating environments of high levels of thriving at work. So employees in that context were learning, they were operating, they ultimately looked up psychological safety. So were there was psychological safety, and the thriving at work, and the paradoxical leader behavior, there were positive outcomes around creativity, so.

David:                           15:36                That’s interesting, that’s really interesting. Was there a suggestion there … I’m just trying to get my head around what you’re just saying here. [crosstalk 00:15:45] –

Sarah:                           15:46                Kind of confusing –

David:                           15:50                There are a lot of –

Sarah:                           15:50                That they can coexist I think is the bit, so you can have paradox … that’s what this paper suggests. You can have paradoxical leader behavior, and have thriving at work, and have psychological safety. And when all of those exist –

David:                           16:04                Yeah, heightened levels –

Sarah:                           16:06                Heightened levels of creativity, and innovation in the teams, yeah.

David:                           16:09                So I get that, and I understand how that is. I’m interested in this thing about, just going back to paradoxical leadership, does that mean therefor that in terms of this idea of paradoxical leadership, that they’re not managing the paradox in a way that smooths over it, and makes it disappear for their staff.

Sarah:                           16:34                Yes.

David:                           16:35                Is that what it’s saying?

Sarah:                           16:36                Well so if we go … so there were five key things that were indicative of paradoxical leader behavior, so one was about being very clear on, at the same time, what is important to you, so your beliefs, your values, a kind of more self centered, self referenced view of things, and being able to step into the shoes of others, and take another’s perspectives, so being other focused, and self focused.

David:                           17:08                Yes.

Sarah:                           17:08                But they talked about that in terms of simultaneous. So, you know, this idea of both/and behaviors. The second dimension was this one about distance and closeness, so that you could be both close, and that high quality deeper connection with people, and simultaneous … so there is something about this kind of integrating it, being able to do –

David:                           17:29                With objectivity. The big step back.

Sarah:                           17:31                Yes.

David:                           17:31                As well as some kind of relationship [crosstalk 00:17:34] –

Sarah:                           17:35                As well as maintaining your humanity if you like. That kind of connection to the individual. And treating others uniformally, and allowing individualization. Which is an interesting one, ’cause I think that’s one that I hear a lot in organizations, the leaders talking about is, you know, how do you manage that –

David:                           17:48                Yes.

Sarah:                           17:49                Kind of thing … that challenge.

David:                           17:51                Yes, yes, that’s kind of the difference between –

Sarah:                           17:54                And that’s a tricky one to see how you’d be doing that simultaneously in a sense. It’s a –

David:                           17:58                You do need to.

Sarah:                           17:59                You do.

David:                           18:00                You’ve got to be able to treat everybody equally, while not treating every –

Sarah:                           18:03                Yes.

David:                           18:04                By also recognizing the differences between people.

Sarah:                           18:07                Yeah.[crosstalk 00:18:08]

David:                           18:08                Yeah, so there are interesting paradoxes, these.

Sarah:                           18:11                And you can see how, I think some of that, it’s about what’s the scope of one. So you can imagine having quite a broad scope. So for example we treat others uniformally based on a set of values, for example, or something that is quite, kind of, broad. A sort of framework within which there is uniformity. A bit like Menlo Innovations –

David:                           18:37                Yes.

Sarah:                           18:37                And the innovations through tyranny, if you like that kind of –

David:                           18:40                Yes.

Sarah:                           18:41                These are some core things that everybody does.

David:                           18:44                Which you kind of have –

Sarah:                           18:45                Within the space in the middle.

David:                           18:46                With the sense of an organization anyway, because you’ve got to have.

Sarah:                           18:48                Kind of fundamental almost how it works, in a similar way, isn’t it? Yeah, actually that, yeah.

Sarah:                           18:53                And then the fourth one was enforcing work requirements, but allowing flexibility. So they didn’t use the term job crafting, but they were talking about things that I would label or see as job crafting.

David:                           19:07                Yes.

Sarah:                           19:08                So negotiating, and finding that overlap, being very clear about what the job purpose was, the kind of responsibilities, and requirements of the job role. And being really interested and curious in what that individuals strengths were, and what they really wanted to get out of their work. Their motives, and drives and then finding the overlap and the synergy between those. But being able to track that across all teams.

David:                           19:34                I … sorry I’m going to interrupt you –

Sarah:                           19:34                Go on.

David:                           19:35                ’cause one of the things that, that’s bringing to mind is that … ’cause there’s a real paradox between clarity and fuzziness. The fuzziness of the world. That I’m particularly interested in, in terms of kind of uncertainty, and certainly in terms of leadership. That ability to create clarity but also work with the fuzziness, in a way where it’s … I don’t use these words, it operates through the synergy of those things. So it’s using both rather than just going right, okay everything’s got to be clear, and clear cut, and no uncertainty We’re trying to kill the uncertainty. Right through to everything is so light affair, and loose that nobody’s got any structure.

Sarah:                           20:24                Yes.

David:                           20:25                And that ability to be able to use both, differentially depending on the context in the situation.

Sarah:                           20:31                Yeah.

David:                           20:31                Now that’s really interesting.

Sarah:                           20:33                Yeah, and that was exactly what you’re describing was something that they delved into, ’cause they were suggesting that when there was too much looseness, if you like, when all parameters were taken away, all boundaries. So true, the kind of chaos that can arise when there are no rules, if you like, by which we operate or function. And this was the degree to which you reign those in, yet you allow, they were talking a lot obviously about creativity in innovation, about how that was the space where creativity can arise. So you’re leaning into the beginnings of chaos. Kind of that space where it’s fuzzy without letting it spill over into something that means there’s a kind of chaos that is hard then to grab creative ideas from.

David:                           21:26                So there’s no structure [crosstalk 00:21:27]

Sarah:                           21:27                Usefulness. Yeah, yeah.

David:                           21:29                I can see also why this idea of psychological safety now becomes important –

Sarah:                           21:34                Yes.

David:                           21:35                Because the range that people have from I need lots, and lots of clarity, I really don’t like any uncertainty, through I like lots, and lots of uncertainty I don’t like much clarity because I feel it kind of stifles what I’m trying to do, it stifles the creativity. And there is a kind of continuum right across there. And managing that continuum of people within an organization is quite an interest … we’ll it’s a massive challenge that quite one of … again this is part of the paradox, a lot of leaders just ignore. It’s not an issue, they just get on with it. We deal with the tasks rather than that as a process.

Sarah:                           22:16                Yes, and you feel… and there’s a degree of … so you find the space within which you feel psychologically safe, which for a lot of people is by doing the task, and operating within my area where I have a sense of being in control in uncertainty. And creating, I think is one of the most important jobs, for leaders at moment, isn’t it. The increasing requirements and needs to be operating in different ways, is creating a wider frame for people to feel psychologically safe in. That they can feel psychologically safe, and step into territory where its uncertain, and unknown and there are unpredictable outcomes, and they happen to be a bit more experimental –

David:                           22:58                This itself’s’ an issue because in any team you’re gonna have that continuum, but you’re also having to deal with as a team.

Sarah:                           23:10                Yes.

David:                           23:12                Be able to realize that, that’s going on, and manage that paradox, wow this is fascinating.

Sarah:                           23:20                Yeah it is, isn’t it. It’s really interesting, isn’t it? And they highlighted, and the other thing I really liked in this paper, which I’ve not come across before, looking at some stuff about thriving at work, looking at stuff about psychological safety, creativity, when they put all of this together with how does paradoxical leadership come and sit in the mix? Was that where they were suggesting, where you had high thriving at work, but without psychological safety that what could happen is you get a lot of ideas, creative ideas generated but they don’t necessarily go through to completion, or get worked up further [crosstalk 00:23:57], yeah. That it was the psychological safety that was required for people to be able to experiment more, and fail, adjust, course correct, problem solve –

David:                           24:07                This has really challenged something for me.

Sarah:                           24:09                Go on.

David:                           24:09                Well this whole idea, I’ve never thought of this before. You’ve just really struck something inside me actually. This idea of high thriving at work, and low psychological safety. I kind of made this assumption that the two would be together.

Sarah:                           24:25                The two would have to co-exist, yeah.

David:                           24:25                You’d have to have high levels of psychological safety in order to thrive. And this is suggesting that, that’s not the case.

Sarah:                           24:32                No, that’s certainly what they were suggesting in the paper, that they’re not. I would speculate that they are more likely to coexist, I think it would be –

David:                           24:42                Well that’s true. Actually anecdotally –

Sarah:                           24:44                But you know.

David:                           24:46                You know I think back to my past, and certainly with emergency services, the military, you know all of those, there are situations where you are very low levels of safety –

Sarah:                           24:57                Yes.

David:                           25:00                [inaudible 00:25:00] safety because you got to train, but even then you’re often, not often, but now, and again you’re operating outside of those comfort areas.

Sarah:                           25:10                Yeah.

David:                           25:12                And thriving, you’re thriving.

Sarah:                           25:16                So there, and remember this paper’s definition of thriving at work, so the way in which they defined it, which is often the way it’s measured in some of the, kind of, scales around thriving at work –

David:                           25:25                Yes.

Sarah:                           25:26                It’s around learning, and energy. So high energy and a high requirement for learning, and learning in the moment, underpinned by sustained thriving at work over time, is about basic needs being met, psychological needs being met.

David:                           25:44                Yes.

Sarah:                           25:46                And I would, kind of, argue that psychological safety is part of a … is a human need or requirement.

David:                           25:53                Well it’s the whole Maslow’s thing isn’t it?

Sarah:                           25:55                Yes.

David:                           25:56                But I’m fascinated by this idea that you could thrive with low levels of psychological … and actually I thought, I tell you what, as a result of this paper I think we need to go off and do a bit more digging around certainly that question about can you have a situation where you’re thriving at low levels of psychological safety, and anecdotally it seems to be. It’s interesting to see what research is.

Sarah:                           26:21                I think that maybe it’s an individual level. It’s when you start to scan it isn’t it –

David:                           26:25                Very interesting.

Sarah:                           26:26                Yeah, so yeah, and they’ve researched suggesting that there may be lots of ideas that come up, but it was the psychological safety that were to lead to people being able to be more agile, and experimental, and then deal with the problems that then arose.

David:                           26:43                Yes, yes, interesting. And then there’s this fifth –

Sarah:                           26:49                And then the fifth one, yeah, so there were five of these both/and behaviors, and the fifth behavior was about maintaining decision control, and allowing autonomy, so treading that line between when you, kind of, step in, and you make a decision, versus allowing people to make decisions.

David:                           27:10                Now that’s one of the things from the uncertainty studies that we know, that people who are uncomfortable with uncertainty tend to step in, so as the uncertainty increases they’re much more likely to step in, and heavier the more uncertainty there is. Whereas people who are good with uncertainty do the opposite. So they allow much more autonomy the greater the level of uncertainty because it’s that way that they start to find out what’s really happening. And they get those kind of diversity of views, and people start to challenge them more. They allow more of those challenges, whereas individuals who don’t like the uncertainty don’t like the challenges particularly the greater the level of uncertainty. Which is kind of … and that fits beautifully with this idea about decision control, and allowing autonomy, particularly in paradoxical situations.

Sarah:                           28:00                Yes.

David:                           28:01                And I can well imagine lots of managers, in fact organizations almost breed them to a certain extent, who don’t like the uncertainty of a paradox actually trying to control things.

Sarah:                           28:14                Yes, yes. And –

David:                           28:17                A bit interesting.

Sarah:                           28:18                And when you layer onto this as well, cultural difference and you layer onto this different … So I’m very interested in Michele Gelfand work on tight and loose cultures, and looking at, you know, say China for example, would be quite a tight culture, and the UK would be somewhere in the middle, and America, and some of the South American countries would be much looser countries, and looser cultures. The Netherlands for example, they’re much looser kind of a culture. And she talks about this in some of her work. She’s from that perspective, is then started to get interested in a topic that I know you’re really fascinated in, the organizational ambidexterity, which is about how organizations actually thrive best when there able to flex between both of those, being tight versus being loose.

David:                           29:14                Yes.

Sarah:                           29:14                And that that can be, when you recognize kind of cultural difference at a social level as well. Social cultural difference, and then an organizational culture. And she suggests that there are two that, this idea of a structured looseness –

David:                           29:32                Yes.

Sarah:                           29:33                Or a flexible tightness. So know which you are more, you are slightly more in. And then how do you either bring in a bit of flexibility if actually your more centered in being a tighter organization. And I think the decision control, and autonomy one is a really interesting place where that shows up.

David:                           29:53                In fact there’s two things that come to mind with that. That’s a lot of the work that we do in organizations anyway, around uncertainty is, by helping them understand, I know this sounds really weird, but helping them understand the structure of uncertainty, cause once they understand the structure of uncertainty, it kind of enables people to operate in a less avoidant way.

Sarah:                           30:16                Yes.

David:                           30:16                So that they are significantly less likely to stay away from the uncertainty, and reach for control, once they understand that uncertainty has a structure. I know it sounds a bit paradoxical –

Sarah:                           30:27                No, no, no, it doesn’t.

David:                           30:29                Weird and that sits very, very nicely and then the other thing that brought up for me is this, the whole thing about organizational ambidexterity. The realization I’ve just had … I could be working with this for years, is that actually organizational ambidexterity is actually managing a paradox. And the paradoxal. How do we keep doing what we’re good at whilst innovating and developing the future at the same time.

Sarah:                           30:55                Yeah.

David:                           30:56                And do we do it at the same time? Or do we do it in swings, where we do a bit of this, and do a bit of that. And the studies tend to show, in particularly these days, that it’s best done separately so that you’ve got a team doing the future paced stuff, and then you’ve got the bulk of the organization serving the product, or service or whatever it happens to be and making it all happen. And then there’d be some kind of feeder communication between the two. And you don’t actually need … this was a really interesting challenge in a study last year. You don’t need ambidextrous individuals. You need ambidextrous managers and leaders to manage the process –

Sarah:                           31:36                Okay, yes.

David:                           31:37                But you have creative individuals over there in that box, or that department and keep them separate. And then you have the operational people over here doing the stuff around the product thing. And that defining so far, although there’s some recent findings start to question that. Seem to be the most effective way of managing [crosstalk 00:31:59]that paradox.

Sarah:                           31:59                But okay, okay. Yes.

David:                           32:02                That’s what it actually is it’s a paradox.

Sarah:                           32:02                Yes.

David:                           32:02                I don’t know why I haven’t thought of that before, I don’t know.

Sarah:                           32:08                But the um, there’s a couple of things that interest me about that. So one is so, that tension exists I think in almost all organizations anyway, and their research and so for example looking at legal functions within organizations that there are certain kind of professional roles, that within that profession have a tighter culture, versus a looser culture.

Sarah:                           32:33                And one of the things that Michele Gelfand advocates when she talks about it, is that the organizations where they seem to have a recognition of the value of both. So a bit like your describing, that one, people can see the structure of uncertainty. When people can see the structure of the cultural difference –

David:                           32:52                And the structure of a paradox, they can see the paradox.

Sarah:                           32:54                Yes. That actually allows people to be able to, so now then there’s not a kind of covert tension. It’s like you’ve brought it out into the open, and once it’s out into the open it’s … and I personally think that some of that is about the emotional stuff. That when things are sort of preconscious. You’re kind of aware of the tension, but actually you’ve not brought it into mind, you’ve not been able to label it, talk about it, see the structure of it. It sort of sits there at a psychological level as a bit of a kind of a threat, a discomfort –

David:                           33:31                Yeah, the tension.

Sarah:                           33:32                The tension, yeah. But once you can talk about it, and there’s a way of labeling it, and you can unpack the structure of it, It’s sort of like, ah actually it’s okay. It’s a real thing. It’s okay, you know we can have a conversation about it now and it sort of releases that –

David:                           33:46                Yes. And there’s a whole line of research around tension and creativity, but also tension in organizations.

Sarah:                           33:55                Okay.

David:                           33:55                And why that tension’s important. But there’s a lot around psychological tension. Particularly around motivation. But it’s those tensions that bring around motivation, but they also bring around learning –

Sarah:                           34:07                Yeah.

David:                           34:08                So without … there’s a whole kind of Seth theories around the idea that if there is no tension there is no learning.

Sarah:                           34:16                Yep.

David:                           34:16                Right. I’m not sure I’d go that far but it’s not far off.

Sarah:                           34:19                Yes.

David:                           34:19                That we require those tensions in order to say, hang on there’s something new here. It’s those tensions [crosstalk 00:34:25] –

Sarah:                           34:25                Cognitive dissonance is what they are, yeah, yes.

David:                           34:28                It’s interesting –

Sarah:                           34:28                So there’s … So I guess there’s the degree to which it’s a tension and that comes back, were looping around, maybe comes back to the uncertainty bit about how the degree to which you are able to sit with the discomfort that arises with tension, versus rushing to need to resolve it. And that if you rush to resolve it we may be more likely to resolve by not shifting, and learning, do you see what I mean? Kind of not –

David:                           34:57                Solve the problem –

Sarah:                           34:58                Reorganizing, or restructuring, or understanding in a richer way, by kind of almost having a tighter defaulting back, if you like, into a safer work space.

David:                           35:10                Do you remember, all that work years ago that … in fact we had one of those amazing conversations, which was a process that we did –

Sarah:                           35:16                Oh yeah.

David:                           35:16                And we had … I did that thing on the problem space –

Sarah:                           35:20                Yes.

David:                           35:21                And the idea that actually when we notice a problem, it’s never the problem that we notice, it’s the symptoms we notice. We never notice the problems because the problem always occurs … its silent. And it’s too far removed and it takes a while for the problem to start to move into a space where we notice it. So for example if you get a stomach ache, we think the stomach aches the problem, but the doctor knows immediately that, that’s a symptom.

David:                           35:49                But what we’re trying to do is solve the symptom, where the doctor goes, hang on a minute. I need to find out what the problem really is. You know I’m not ignoring the symptom, but I’m not solving the symptom, whilst the patient wants me to solve the symptom, I need to find out what the problem is, solve that, and then that will deal with the … So we’re dealing with a similar kind of thing here. It’s that there’s difference. So trying to resolve a paradox too early, usually is actually dealing with a symptom.

Sarah:                           36:22                Yes.

David:                           36:22                You just want the symptoms to go away because of that discomfort –

Sarah:                           36:24                Yes.

David:                           36:25                whereas the kind of [inaudible 00:36:28]as it were, the people who are really good with uncertainty, recognize that all their dealing with are the symptoms here that actually we need to do one of two things. We either need to try to find out where the problem is, and deal with that, or we need to see what the context and the situation is here, and what opportunities that provides, and then move on without actually resolving that particular symptom. We can use that to develop something else. And a lot of the studies that I was involved in a few years ago, shows that good entrepreneurs use that frame for dealing with things. They don’t solve problems, they see the symptoms and they create a new solution from the reality of that situation. They’re very good at saying okay, heres the reality. This is where we can go from there. This is the opportunity that this allows.

Sarah:                           37:19                Which makes complete sense when you start to see that actually organizations are complex adaptive systems that there is no kind oh, it is this one thing that is the root of this. And actually therefor whereas the most appropriate thing to be focusing on in terms of your energy –

David:                           37:42                Yes.

Sarah:                           37:43                And I’m not, I know again, I’m doing this, looping around but these things are on, so kind of interconnected –

David:                           37:49                Yes.

Sarah:                           37:50                Because it loops back into this skill of being able to differentiate and then integrate. To kind of … complexity being that there’s one common purpose but actually multiple interconnected, and interdependent parts –

David:                           38:04                Yes.

Sarah:                           38:06                So being able to … you know a complex system, being one that’s kind of broadly differentiated, very widely differentiated, but also integrated. So being able to see those differences between those different problems, or this problem here and now and recognize those fine differences. Being able to discriminate, I guess more carefully, seeing relationships and connections, and there not needing to rush to resolving, or settling them, but being okay with that.

David:                           38:37                Yes, in order to see what’s in there –

Sarah:                           38:39                Yes.

David:                           38:40                Because it’s … and so in a research frame we would call it multi-factor al.

Sarah:                           38:43                Yeah.

David:                           38:44                So all complex problems have a range of factors that … so you take something like obesity, right, you know. The old kind of thinking was that obesity was just about calories.

Sarah:                           38:57                Yes.

David:                           38:57                You know you’re eating too much and that’s it. But actually we know now that, that’s not the case. What we find is people who are obese are eating too much because they are obese. Not become obese because they’re eating too much. It’s the other way around, and what they’ve found is it’s a series of hormones. That things like insulin and various other hormones, that actually … as I say there’s a whole series of factors that contribute, including contextual factors, habitual factors as well as hormonal factors, and some other issues that actually contribute to obesity.

David:                           39:34                And so you know, you just think about the 2008 crash. It wasn’t one context. It wasn’t one party that created that or anything else it was multi-factor al. And a complex combination of those multi-factors. You just take that to any organization, and when I kind of hear, yeah well that’s the cause. You kind of look and go, really?

Sarah:                           39:57                Yes.

David:                           39:57                You know where’s the evidence for that being the cause, and are you actually looking at the problem or are you looking at the symptom here? And quite often they’re looking at the symptom and doing this kind of simplification. That really good research, the [inaudible 00:40:13] space research will start to pin point some of the factors which this is doing. This is showing some of the factors to do with paradoxical leadership. You know having to lead through paradoxes. And actually the idea of leadership, and management really is about managing, and dealing with a range of day to day, and strategic paradoxes –

Sarah:                           40:38                Yes. I think it’s fundamentally one of the core challenges and demands of particularly senior leadership in organizations, and I would suggest all leadership. I know it’s one of the things sometimes when I’m working with leaders, or in programs, and they’re talking about, so that, that senior executive level and you’re talking about that shift, that ability to be able to deal with, to recognize, and sit with paradox. Be able to recognize the uncertainty actually is everything that that role was about. And for some people they hit a level in their career progression I think, were they go … And I’ve had participants on programs actually say, stop and kind of go actually I’m not sure what this is to me. I’m not sure I hadn’t recognized actually how vital this is, as a shift that I need to make. And I need to think deeply and hard about whether it’s a shift I want to make. Because nobody had talked to me before about the degree to which this –

David:                           41:44                What this was about.

Sarah:                           41:45                I was going to have to step into that kind of space, yeah, and I don’t … I think leaders operating at a senior level as executives of organizations, they know … I think that they, you know, you can’t, not recognize the degree of uncertainty and see thats why there’s paradoxes. But I’m not sure there’s a lot that are preparing people for them, as they move into those roles.

David:                           42:07                I don’t think very much does.

Sarah:                           42:08                Or even an open conversation about an existing organization, so still this illusion you know that we need to appear as if everything’s in control and there’s a … we have a sense of certain path forward.

David:                           42:18                Yes, this whole idea we got a strategy, and what our job is to clarity and [crosstalk 00:42:22]

Sarah:                           42:21                Don’t worry about the fact that it’s a bit messy ’cause we’ve got it sorted, in terms of you know.

David:                           42:28                Which is why most strategies don’t last very long, because the wheels shifting and technological change, and everything and that kind of … it doesn’t take very long for an organizational strategy to suddenly kind of run out of steam, because somethings just taken their feet from under them, that’s well, political, economic, or technological, and people aren’t keeping their eye on that. They’re just firing ahead.

Sarah:                           42:52                Which hooks back into this paper, which is, you know, sort of their opening bit, is that, you know, actually therefor because that’s the type of environment and context that organizations are operating in creativity, and innovation is partial. I’m curious about, again, this wasn’t something that they looked at, ’cause when I first saw, you know, kind of, saw the total that grabbed me first of all because it had the word paradox and leadership in the title so that instantly hooked me. But then when I was reading some of the opening bit I was curious about the degree to which actually paradoxical leader behavior might enhance creativity because it might strengthen over time peoples ability to deal with paradox. So by modeling that kind of way of leading and that kind of behavior, would that increase creativity because it’s building that kind of skill. That wasn’t what we looked at in particular. And obviously they were looking at the thriving at work, and the psychological safety aspects as well.

David:                           43:49                And then there’s another question is, because the creativity side kind of goes back to the organizational ambidexterity thing. The creativity side kind of feeds into the future focus change oriented stuff. My question would also be about paradoxical leadership, does it strengthen and enhance the operational side of things. Does that help. Or does clarity help there?

Sarah:                           44:16                Yes.

David:                           44:17                And do leaders therefor need to be able to flip between the two.

Sarah:                           44:20                Yes.

David:                           44:20                And so that, and I think from my point of view, what I’d like to do now is for us to go and do a bit more on this. One side of this is the kind of psychology of paradox, how it impacts people. Both their thinking and their emotions, and their actions, and behavior. And then the other side of this is how paradoxical leadership impacts operations.

Sarah:                           44:48                Yes.

David:                           44:49                As well as the kind of creative forward thinking. So we can do that, we can make up some special reports.

Sarah:                           44:57                Yeah.

David:                           44:57                Brilliant.

Sarah:                           44:57                Let’s do that.

David:                           44:57                That’s really interesting. I like that.

Sarah:                           44:57                It is really interesting, yeah.

David:                           44:57                Brilliant.



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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page