The COVID-19 pandemic catapulted us into highly unfamiliar territory, with a raft of uncertainties and contradictory demands that persist. One of the uppermost and persisting tension that emerged was a trade-off between health and economic priorities. This tension sparked a range of dilemmas for individuals and organisations seeking to navigate their futures in a post COVID-19 world. Research suggests that adopting Paradoxical Thinking can help in effectively managing contradictory demands in times of uncertainty and rapid change.
Organisations in the post-Covid world continue to grapple with decisions about how to ensure that their strategic and operational focus positions them for the ongoing impacts of a prolonged economic downturn, while at the same time fast tracking recovery and navigating a new normal. For individuals propelled into a working from home environment, the boundaries between work and life continue to blur, so that on-going pressure for an 8hr day of productive work must be managed at the same time as changing personal demands. Oversimplified responses to these paradoxical tensions through traditional binary either/or thinking are not helpful in this challenging environment. Rather the situation requires a new approach that will help organisations and individuals operate effectively in the environment of opposite impulses, competing priorities and contradictions. Paradoxical Thinking is one way to respond to these tensions by allowing us to see the challenge from another perspective.
What is Paradoxical Thinking?
Paradoxical Thinking entails ‘a both/and mind-set’ that offers ‘the ability to effectively embrace, rather than avoid, contradictions’ (Lewis & Smith, 2014, Smith & Tushman, 2005). It refers to the way in which we reframe contradictory demands, moving away from binary ‘either/or’ assumptions towards greater exploration of the contradictions and their interdependencies, so that ‘both’ alternatives can be considered. Engaging in Paradoxical Thinking entails exploring tensions, rather than suppressing or avoiding them. Individuals demonstrating Paradoxical Thinking are more likely to give priority to both possibilities, rather than viewing them as binary alternatives and rejecting one over the other. It involves a mind-set whereby individuals learn to accept paradoxical tensions and are more likely to see them as opportunities rather than threats (Zheng, Kark & Meister, 2018).
How can Paradoxical Thinking help us to thrive in uncertainty?
Our recent study explores how individuals engage in Paradoxical Thinking to deal with competing priorities. In this longitudinal case study, we studied 12 individuals facing daily uncertainties and contradictory demands in a large Australian superannuation fund undergoing rapid and significant change. Data was collected in three rounds from May 2019 to April 2020, and focused on exploring how Paradoxical Thinking can help manage the contradictory demands experienced.
Our study highlights that individuals who adopt Paradoxical Thinking can alter their view on the uncertainties they are experiencing which then influences the decisions they make. For example, two people might respond completely differently to the uncertainties and changes arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals who react with an either/or mind-set tend to respond with avoidance and panic, but those who adopt Paradoxical Thinking are better equipped to consider a range of alternatives, thus enabling more nuanced problem solving and courses of action.
Paradoxical Thinking approach
Individuals need strategies for effectively putting Paradoxical Thinking into practice. Building on the findings of our case study, we have developed a simple framework to help individuals adopt Paradoxical Thinking when they work with contradictory demands. Working through the approach can help us to seek insights, both from within and externally, and then act with intent to respond to the paradoxes.
- Seek Insights from within and externally: When evaluating a problem, seek multiple alternative perspectives, through reflection, but also through scanning the environment. Useful questions to consider include:
- How can I reframe the competing priorities to consider both alternatives, rather than choosing ‘either/or’?
- How can I pivot between multiple alternative perspectives?
- What diverse ideas or deeper understanding will help evaluate the problem?
- How can I reframe moments of discomfort as an opportunity rather than a risk?
- How might I step outside my comfort zone to find alternative perspectives?
- Act with Intent:
The following steps can help you act with intent:
- Use simple tools (e.g., pros/cons list) to expand your perspective and evaluate the alternatives.
- Reframe a challenging and ambiguous problem as an opportunity to learn something new.
- Practice letting go of the need to control outcomes and allow space for emerging ideas.
- Take steps to maintain a positive and confident outlook.
- Select and use language with intent.
Acknowledging that the trade-offs from the impact of the COVID-19 are likely to remain for some time, we need to learn how to manage them over the long term. Paradoxical Thinking is not a silver bullet for the myriad of challenges of COVID-19. However, it can offer a useful approach for finding equilibrium when addressing competing demands between health and economy, work and life, short and long-term benefits and other persisting tensions we are currently facing.