Managers can solve some problems. But other issues keep coming back at them, again and again, like an Energizer Bunny. They’re paradoxes, where you need to navigate your way, over time, between two options that are interrelated, both with merit, and at each juncture requiring a different configuration.
Common examples are balancing centralization and decentralization, price and quality or operations and innovation. A Danish collective of management researchers has compiled a thoughtful list of 10 paradoxes leaders face in the complicated act of managing. They might seem dense or abstract, but are also real struggles plaguing managers in complex organizations – Energizer Bunny conundrums:
- Leadership and management: Executives must struggle with the interconnected yet opposing demands of management, an administrative and operations-focused activity, and leadership, which has a development and values-based focus. “Organizations need strong leadership and strong management to achieve optimal efficiency. In today’s dynamic workplaces we need leaders who can challenge the status quo and inspire and convince the organization’s members. We also need managers who can contribute to the development and maintenance of a smoothly operating workplace,” academics Rikke Kristine Nielsen, Frans Bévort, Thomas Duus Henriksen, and Anne-Mette Hjalager, and Danielle Bjerre Lyndgaard of the Confederation of Danish Industry, write in Navigating Leadership Paradoxes.
- Individual leadership and collective/distributed leadership: Competent employees can and will lead themselves. They are often far more professionally skilled for the task they are to perform than their leaders and are closer to the customer. But leaders must set the framework – systems, procedures, rules and models – for the organization and find the right way to support self-directed and competent employees. These tensions occur in all organizations, but can be most intense in technical organizations, professions and universities.
- Matrix and functional organizing: We usually work closely in a department with others who share a similar specialization, such as marketing, finance or human resources, but are also drawn beyond that for endeavours which require a range of talents and expertise, such as launching a new product. That leads to a matrix reporting structure where individuals report to their own department and another leader for this effort. As organizations become more complex, this hybrid way of working, with all the complications and associated conflicts, becomes more common.
- Purpose, passion and performance: Leaders must balance the desire for organizational performance with creating the environment for employee commitment and engagement. Traditionally, leaders have focused on performance, looking at the bottom line, market share and other financial or operations indicators, but recently there has been an understanding of the importance of setting out an overall corporate purpose and identity that might arouse employee passion and purpose. At its best, this paradox can reflect the energy and harmony captured by the yin-yang symbol; at its worst, it can be a debilitating clash of opposites.
- Employee mobility and permanence: Employees are increasingly free agents; these days there are even fractional executives, who work one or two days a week. Leaders must manage the tensions created between those employees in for a brief visit and others planning to stay. It’s a people management issue for our times as temporal specialists bring knowledge but you need stable practices, routines and ongoing employees.
- Physical and virtual presence: Since the pandemic we have been highly aware of this tension based on where people work. Having devised schedules, managers need to pay attention whether they are communicating in the proper way, notably when immediate feedback through nodding, facial expressions and word is absent.
- Differentiation/localization and integration/globalization: Any time two people work together on a task this arises, as they decide whether to divide the work or each perform the same task in parallel. In far-flung organizations, this paradox involves how much or where to differentiate its services and processes to meet local situations while maintaining the benefits of an integrated approach across the entire organization.
- Innovating outside in and inside out: Should organizations try to keep their good ideas to themselves, developing those innovations under the utmost secrecy, or should they talk widely with outsiders, including customers, about their ambitions to acquire unexpected ideas and feedback? Terms like “open innovation” and “co-creating” have arisen in recent years as companies reach out. In some cases, different departments have opposite approaches, the authors note, the research and development department closed like an oyster while the marketing department showcases all aspects of its operation.
- Human and non-human resources: With digital transformation over the years, and now the addition of artificial intelligence, managers must deal with the interplay between human and non-human resources. The authors see this as a rising tension we will need to orchestrate.
- Profit and people and planet: Sustainable leadership has meant not just focusing on profits but taking into consideration how to act in the best way for people and the planet. This requires simultaneous consideration for contradictory objectives that often contain within them knotted paradoxes – so paradoxes on steroids, if you will.
Seeing that list can be intimidating. Still, it’s worth highlighting paradoxes that you have not paid attention to and be more alert for the future. Managers tend to see themselves as problem solvers. Paradoxes can only be navigated, so managers need that skill as well.
- Investigating some popular leadership quotes, former Rotman School of Management Dean Roger Martin reports that archivists at The Drucker Institute can find no evidence of Peter Drucker saying “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” or “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The measurement quote is also often attributed to management thinker W. Edwards Deming but the Deming Institute found he actually said, “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it — a costly myth.”
- Three ways to increase your energy from executive coach Dan Rockwell: Delegate authority to competent people and trust them, stop complaining about things you can’t change and enjoy the people you work with.
- With too many available collaboration tools, many people feel overwhelmed managing them. Researchers coaching employees to subtract some of the tools from their arsenal found the participants felt even more helpless because colleagues still relied on what was being jettisoned. The message: Subtraction needs to be dictated from the top of organizations.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.