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Life is full of paradoxes, contradictions and apparent oxymorons. Success is often determined through the tension between two contrary desired ends. But it is also in our human nature to avoid bringing those contradictions to the surface, particularly in our organizations. So we let them fester, blocking us from moving ahead as far as we might, and sometimes creating opposing camps fighting guerrilla warfare by memo and artifice.

Let's take one of the most common contradictions. Most organizations are dedicated to producing quality products and services. And most organizations are also committed to efficiency. But at times, quality and efficiency can be contradictory goals. It might be difficult to achieve both at the same time. Similarly, it's often difficult to achieve quality and cost reduction at the same time, as the "more for less" gang claim.

The prevailing management position is to ignore the contradiction. Managers will choose whichever of the two goals seems most pressing at the time, and let it triumph. That might means efficiency rules for a six-month period, until anecdotal evidence surfaces that customers are concerned with deteriorating quality, in which case the tilt shifts in the opposite direction for a while. The other common technique is to simply go with instinct or the best case put forward at the particular time a decision is being considered. So in the morning, a decision favours quality at the expense of efficiency and in the afternoon the reverse occurs.

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Meanwhile, employees' heads spin. They can't figure out what really counts in the organization. And many of them will take advantage of any inconsistency to criticize management, dampening morale. "They tell us quality is important, but look at how they are wrecking quality by that crazy decision to speed up the process," cynics will tell anyone willing to listen. Or they will feast on the contrary decisions in a short time span: "Yesterday morning, they decided to accept some inefficiency in the name of quality and then did you see what they did in the afternoon? Exactly the reverse! What a bunch of morons."

Meanwhile, you keep talking about clarity and alignment, just like the management experts urge, aloof from the reality of the workplace.

Running an organization is not simple. That's the challenge and fascination of management. You will always face contradictions and paradoxes. The trick is to identify them and grapple with them openly, so they aren't hidden. What makes managers look foolish is in not acknowledging the grey areas while talking in black and white terms. The result is confusion and cynicism, not clarity and connection.

Start by identifying the various contradictions that bedevil your organization. There are probably a dozen or so, with three to five quite prominent. Everybody knows about them – people might even have divided into camps over them – but they have probably never been openly discussed in a general way, like quality and efficiency, or superb customer service and the need to keep staffing low. Less fundamental, but also important, might be the fact you say you want to hire the best people but you are always in a rush to fill a spot. Or perhaps you say you want to give developmental opportunities to your people but you tend to always hire from outside. Centralization vs. local autonomy, of course, is an eternal favourite. Consultant Kevin Eikenberry recently highlighted a common contradiction: Compliance or commitment; which do you want?

Meetings, by the way, are loaded with contradictions. They are meant to build a team feeling but are best when people challenge one another, which can lead to conflict. The urge in a meeting is to plunge straight ahead to conclude an item but inevitably the best parts of meetings are when you get sidetracked, wallowing in some unexplored issue.

Once you have identified these contradictions, talk openly about them. It can help to identify the positive elements in each element of a contradiction you have raised, to understand that both are still laudable intents and neither side is wholly wrong. How can you gain the positives each offers, a win-win in Western terms and a yin-yang in Eastern terms? Then try to figure out whether you can approach these dilemmas with more consistency and logic, developing some overall policy that keeps you – and staff – more balanced and consistent.

Next week, let's look at the contradictions within ourselves.

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  • Much is being made of the low-wage organizations in Ontario faced with an increase in the minimum wage not raising prices. Duh! It would be exceedingly dumb of a manager of a large chain to do it now, shortly after the legislation took effect. But prices rise, and they will again, when it can be done with less fear of being politically exposed.
  • The desire of Americans for a military man as president to lead the country seems now replaced by a celebrity on a couch. It’s a reminder of the thirst for heroic leadership, which usually ends badly. Most candidates for president, of course, are celebrities to get to that pinnacle – some, like our own Prime Minister, members of celebrity families – but they are schooled in their now-chosen field, past the 10,000-hour mark if you will.
  • Add this to your decision-making arsenal: Seth Godin suggests writing a one-pager on each alternative you’re considering, strongly arguing the case, handing it to staff, leaving the room and letting them decide.
'You have to have a strategy or else you don’t know where you are going, and then of course you have to be able to make it happen, call that leadership' Special to Globe and Mail Update
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