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Management How core tensions can tear you apart if you don’t find the right balance

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pivotal tension, Mr. Alex Lowy feels, involves preserving his leadership reputation versus containing the SNC-Lavalin issue without appearing to be autocratic or dishonest in the process.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Consultant Terry St. Marie refers to a seesaw. Toronto business adviser Alex Lowy considers them core tensions. I call them contradictions.

Organizations – and individuals – can find themselves torn apart by conflicting possibilities. When brought in to help struggling organizations, Mr. Lowy begins by looking for underlying dynamics that are tough and interesting: “At the core, there are always two major forces competing for primacy.”

He points to short-term versus long-term benefits, and change versus stability as common core tensions. Mr. St. Marie, on his blog, lists six dilemmas we seesaw over, tilting between one or the other: current processes vs. innovation ... openness vs. secrecy ... risk-taking vs. conservatism ... hubris vs. humility ... talking vs. listening ... and holding people accountable vs. showing some leniency.

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“How we deal with these contradictions and find our balance on the seesaw can be the difference between good and great,” he writes.

In an era where simplicity and boldness are celebrated, rather than seesawing or seeing balance, a leader’s instinct can be to pick one option and steamroll over the other. But neither option is totally invalid, and if your heart isn’t divided, your organization may be with proponents of each path. Steamrolling can be divisive, if not explosive.

Mr. Lowy and his wife tussled with short term vs. long term as they focused recently on financial planning. They want to live comfortably now but not give up future possibilities. They could at one extreme spend profligately or, at the other extreme, spend virtually nothing. Neither approach would be wise. They need to combine a short-term and long-term perspective – find the best of both worlds.

That comes, says Mr. Lowy, by exploring the dynamic tension between the choices through a 2x2 matrix: Place one element of the core tensions plaguing you on each axis and see what is revealed. Mr. Lowy combined in 2004 with his Silicon Valley-based partner Phil Hood to produce The Power of the 2x2 Matrix, which highlighted 55 models flowing from competing tensions.

I asked him if he could show how the process works in something recent and he picked the political conflagration over SNC-Lavalin. Like me, you may be over-saturated on that issue, but he wasn’t looking into the past. Instead, he illuminated the core tensions ahead, showing how 2x2 thinking works.

Let’s start with Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, who are facing a classic career choice that you actually might encounter as well. “The countervailing force driving them is consideration of their careers, and their continued ability to influence things that matter to them and the people they represent. At the core for them is the trade-off between integrity, staying true to their inner beliefs, and influence, maintaining personal relevance and profile,” he says.

Acting totally on principle with little regard to career and reputation leads in his matrix to over-sacrifice. The reverse, total career concern while sacrificing integrity leads to over-compromise. Things spin out of control if there is no focus on either career or integrity. Ideally, if you hit a similar situation, you want to explore achieving the best of both options, which he labels “manage perceptions.”

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The opposition also faces a dilemma: Exploit the situation fully or demonstrate leadership maturity. “The leaders of the opposition parties have so far been big winners of the protracted debacle, gaining strength simply as a result of Canadians being either disgusted or fed up with the whole affair. But they risk pushing it too far now, and losing credibility and good will. Their core strategic dilemma is exploiting the situation for full value while at the same time demonstrating poise, restraint and maturity,” he says.

Finally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pivotal tension, Mr. Lowy feels, involves preserving his leadership reputation versus containing the issue without appearing to be autocratic or dishonest in the process. Again, failure on both fronts leads to things spinning out of control which, arguably, we have seen. If he focuses solely on containing the issue, he will be viewed as heavy-handed. Totally focusing on reputation but allowing the issue to fester can make him seem weak. He needs to manage both, which Mr. Lowy calls “the elusive goal.”

But let’s pivot back to where we started. In your life and work, just like those political leaders, you face a variety of contradictions and tensions. Which is the most important dichotomy? If the impulse is to choose just one option, it poses, that may be a blunder. Seesawing can also fail. How can you gain the best of both alternatives?

Cannonballs

  • Consultant Art Petty says many significant initiatives are in reality black holes sucking precious time, money and people from better opportunities. Everyone senses the project should be killed, but it isn’t out of ego, politics, or a feeling so much has been spent maybe it will turn around. Act!
  • Research found that offering employees project funding to implement their own creative proposals seems to backfire, undermining participation in the suggestion program. It appears employees at the medical organization studied perceived the extra cost and responsibility of leading such projects as intimidating. Giving a personal reward for top submissions, on the other hand, boosted participation rates without affecting submission quality.
  • Smaller businesses are held to a higher standard of friendliness than larger companies, a University of Toronto professor and colleague from the University of South Carolina found. People expect them to be nicer than larger counterparts and have stronger reactions against them when treated rudely.

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