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Action Tip

Learn to juggle the paradoxes that make life so difficult

Paradoxes pop up everywhere: in the individual choices you make, when teams interact, in inter-group relationships and in organizational positioning. These are all opportunities to toss aside binary logic and take up paradoxical thinking.

Based on

Based on Both / And Thinking by Wendy K. Smith and Marianne W. Lewis (Harvard Business Review Press, 2022)

1/ Personal dilemmas: create your own bespoke solutions

You have to decide between two options (A and B): they are equally tempting, but – so it seems – mutually exclusive. Take this example: you receive an interesting job offer from another company at the same time as you get promoted in your current company. What should you do?

  • Define your dilemma. Describe (write down) the challenge you’re faced with, spelling out your inner “struggle”. Pinpoint the underlying paradox: for instance, there’s a choice to be made between two different types of opportunity (A and B), two opposing values, a problem of priority in a context of limited resources, etc.
  • Change the nature of the dilemma. Come up with a question that is not expressed in mutually exclusive terms. How, for example, could I get A and B at the same time? Even if it seems difficult (or even impossible), this exercise opens up new prospects.
  • Get back in touch with your long-term goals / values / ambitions. Delve into what is most important to you in each of the potential options, and what you might be prepared to set aside.
  • Find a creative solution so you can reconcile your aspirations and constraints. You could accept the new job (B)… at the same time as asking for a temporary arrangement so you can carry on working part-time as a consultant in your old position (A), while wrapping up the last interesting items of work professionally and training your successor.
  • Take advice: your inner circle will be better than you at seeing the different solutions for accommodating the competing demands because they are outside the problem; you, on other hand, are entangled in your emotional defenses in the face of the paradox. Listen to your friends, jot down their ideas and the defensive reactions they arouse in you… then come back to them.
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Marianne Gerard
Published by Marianne Gerard
Marianne graduated from HEC in 1998 and is now a freelance journalist specializing in management and higher education. What really fires her up is the human dimension and she is c taking a psychology course at Rennes 2 University.