Managing with paradoxes in everyday organisational life

In previous posts I have drawn attention to some of the enduring paradoxes of organisational life. Organisations are sites of both stability and change, innovation and habit, creativity and destruction. Even in every day activity employees are confronted with paradoxes of the individual and the group, of the ‘I’ in the ‘we’, and the need to both compete and co-operate with others to get things done. And when reorganisations happen there are likely to be both winners and losers from the changes, employees will feel both recognised and misrecognised, included and excluded from the new arrangements.  The ordinary paradoxes of every day life in organisations often call out strong feelings in employees, which in turn may provoke anxiety in managers as they grapple with what they might do to alleviate the discomfort, both their own and that of the people they manage.

Paradoxes are an uncomfortable phenomenon for more orthodox theories of management which prefer problems suggesting solutions. Paradoxes are both logical and illogical at the same time and provide no obvious place to stand in order to resolve them, and must appear a big irritation for a doctrine based on ideas of certainty and predictability. They are predicaments rather than problems, and may iterate and reiterate calling out polarising behaviour in staff.

The more conventional management literature has a number of approaches to dealing with paradox in order to stay within the paradigm of control, the most obvious of which is to reframe the paradox as a dualism. So, for example, a distinction is often made between the humdrum and the transformational, between managers and leaders, between the inadequate present and the inspirational future. Managers are those who do things right and leaders are those who do the right things. Managerial life is transactional, while leaders transform, they can turn negatives into positives. In representing the paradox as a binary, managers are encouraged to choose to come down on one side of the dualism or the other. In the choice that is supposed to exist between stability and change, leaders choose change, they choose to be transformational, and they choose the inspirational future over the embarrassing present. Managers can be both objective analysts of the organisations they are managing and can be subject to the unfolding of their own managerial designs. The messy and inadequate present can be transformed into an idealised future.

Another way of construing paradox is to reconfigure it as a linear progression between stable states. Kurt Lewin’s, unfreeze, change, refreeze model of change, or his concept of force field analysis are good examples of this. In the latter theory Lewin recognises that employees are constrained and enabled by all of the factors that present themselves in the ‘field’ of operation: he argues that it is possible to identify and amplify those forces pertinent to a situation which are likely to promote change, and to diminish those which are likely to inhibit it, including group and individual values. The paradox is split apart as a binary of choices where managers attend to first one pole, then the other in a linear time phase, to bring about a desired result. Of course, Lewin’s theories have often been taken up in organisations much more simplistically and mechanistically than he intended, given his awareness of and interest in the complex dynamics of group and organisational life. Nonetheless, his theories are rooted in parts/whole thinking and the modelling and moving of the ‘whole system’ from one stable state to another.

Additionally conventional theories of management can work paradoxes round to a double bind. A double bind is best illustrated by the joke about the neurotic mother who gives her son two ties for his birthday. When he puts one on and invites her approval she responds: ‘what’s wrong with the other one?’ A double bind is similar to a paradox in the sense that there are two, contradictory choices which negate each other but where neither of the choices is desirable. In other words it is a truncated paradox. For example, in organisational life employees are often enjoined to align with organisational visions and values and at the same time they are encouraged to be autonomous and creative. Employees are encouraged to spell out in advance how their work will be novel and innovative and at the same time fall squarely within organisational imperatives and fulfil prereflected targets. There are a variety of contradictory, self-referencing injunctions in orthodox managerial practice which come close to double binds, or similarly encourage paralysis in employees through mutually negating injunctions. One highly restrictive and objectives-based performance management process adopted by one of the organisations I worked with was predicated on the idea that managers could perform well as managers if they accepted the idea of performance management as personified by this particular performance management policy. To be bound by it was to be free to perform well.

One of the challenges for contemporary managers is how to work with the often infuriating and anxiety-provoking  paradoxes of every day organisational life without ignoring them, splitting them, or reducing them, a subject which we will explore in subsequent posts.


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