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Team building

Embrace the paradox to become a better leader

IbyIMD+ Published 21 December 2021 in Team building • 10 min read

Conflicting tensions in the workplace are inevitable. Engaging with them can be challenging but also incredibly motivating, according to the latest research.


As our world becomes more complex, leaders continually struggle to find new way to address their toughest problems. But as we have found in our research, the problem is not the problem, the problem is how we think about the problem. Consider some of the challenges facing four of the leaders in our studies:

Terri Kelly felt ongoing tensions when she became CEO of W.L. Gore and Associates in 2005. Bill Gore founded the organization in 1958 with the goal of creating a technology-driven engineering firm that valued experimentation, innovation and independence. To do so, he built a culture based on “the power of small teams”. Employees were able to propose an idea, and then build a small team of around five people to help them implement it. Plant sizes were limited to 150 employees, while offices had no more than 200. This allowed everyone to know one another in the building and operate autonomously. This culture led to tremendous success, with a huge number of innovative products being developed and commercialized. By the time Kelly took over, Gore had around 35 offices internationally with more than 10,000 employees. But the small entrepreneurial culture that led to their successes challenged efforts to develop on a global scale and leverage resources and capabilities across the organization to build an enterprise-wide strategy in the global marketplace. Kelly felt the tug-of-war between small independent teams and the scale of the enterprise, entrepreneurial and operational effectiveness, centralization and decentralization.

Zita Cobb launched the registered charity Shorefast to strengthen the economy of a dying community, but experienced skepticism and challenges. Cobb grew up on Fogo Island, situated far in the North Atlantic; a community built on strong community ties, a culture of hospitality and a reliance on cod. With the arrival of international factory fishing fleets, the inland cod stocks dried up. With their main resource depleted, residents started to leave. Cobb left with her family, moved to Ottawa to go to university, and eventually became the Chief Strategy Officer of the fiber optics company JDS Uniphase, making her the second highest paid female executive in North America. Yet Fogo Island beckoned. She moved back and launched Shorefast to help advance the local economy. But how could the charity help to modernize the island and make it possible for the community to thrive in the global economy? How could she help build an economy that advanced, rather than diminished, their society and culture? How could she support the community’s fiercely independent nature while also bringing in outside help?

Kerry Ann Rockquemore knew that starting her entrepreneurial venture, the National Center for Development and Diversity (NCFDD), would be full of challenges. As an academic, Rockquemore had experienced how faculty mentoring was informal and scant and, as a result, often left behind underrepresented minorities. She launched NCFDD to provide faculty with online teaching tools and networks to enable more productivity and success. She hired academics and entrepreneurs to launch the venture, but found that their different approaches brought ongoing tensions to the surface. The academics tended to be more methodical and organized, seeking options that would effectively serve their mission, while the entrepreneurs worked on a tighter timeline, keeping a keen eye on the bottom line. The success of the venture depended on how Rockquemore steered them through the tensions between mission and markets, planning and emergence, a slow and fast-pace.  

Desa Burton was the kind of child who mapped out her whole future, including working hard to win a scholarship to attend MIT early admission. But as she was about to accept the scholarship, her mother shared a story about her late father’s biggest regret: he had dreamed of going to the Naval Academy, but as a young Black man from Mississippi, not one senator would offer him a nomination for admission. He eventually became a Naval officer but died on active duty when his daughter was 13. Burton idolized her father. Should she try to do what he never had the chance to do and apply to the Naval Academy? It would put her in situations where she would be one of the only women, and almost certainly one of the only Black women. Or should she take up the MIT scholarship that she had worked so hard for?

The four leaders were presented with challenging dilemmas, experiencing the tug-of-war between competing demands. Yet lurking within these dilemmas are paradoxes – contradictory, yet interdependent elements that persist over time. Leaders often experience the pull between opposing sides and feel pressure to make a choice. Yet our research suggests that this kind of either/or thinking is limited at best and detrimental at worst. Either/or thinking can lead us into a rut as we choose one option and stick with it. Focus too much on operational excellence and we may fail to innovate until it’s too late. Over-emphasize the mission without enough attention to the bottom line and we may run out of the resources needed for success.

Instead, we find that the most effective leaders draw on both/and thinking. They are both aware of tensions and adopt a paradox mindset to address these tensions. In our research, we find that both/and thinking enables more creative, effective and sustainable solutions over time.


The paradox mindset inventory

We created the Paradox Mindset Inventory to assess this increasingly vital capability. We validated the scale drawing on data from thousands of people from the US, England, China and Israel. Since this study was published in the Academy of Management Journal consultants, researchers and leaders demonstrated the scale’s value and effectiveness in various countries and settings.

We found that leveraging both/and thinking involves both experiencing tensions and paradox mindsets:

  • Experiencing tensions: People differ in the extent to which they experience tensions. That may be due to the extent to which there is tension in their environment. In our research, we find that people experience more tensions in settings that are defined by change – the faster the pace of change, the more we experience tensions between what is and what will be; plurality – the more voices and perspectives there are from different people and stakeholders, the more we experience tensions between varied goals, roles and values; and scarcity – the more people experience a lack of resources the more competition there will be over how the resources should be shared. In addition, we find that different people are more attuned to the tensions in their environment, while others may avoid or ignore tensions. The more you experience and engage with tension, the more adopting a paradox mindset will be beneficial for you.
  • Paradox mindset: Some people respond to tensions by pulling apart the alternatives, identifying a list of pros and cons and seeking to make a decision between them. We describe this as a more dichotomous mindset. Once such either/or decisions are made, people often remain committed to their decision, even if the context changes. In contrast, others adopt a paradox mindset, seeking to appreciate both the contradictions and their interdependencies. These both/and thinkers are often willing to revisit their point of view with new information. People who adopt a paradox mindset tend to accept tensions as natural and persistent and learn to feel comfortable with the discomfort they elicit.

Four zones for addressing competing demands

Our research found that people were more creative, successful and satisfied in their jobs when they both experienced tensions and adopted a paradox mindset. We find ourselves in different zones depending on how we experience tensions and the mindsets we adopt. The zone we are in can be changed with awareness and training, and by moving into a different environment.

Engaging zone: When people are in the engaging zone, they accept and feel comfortable with the paradoxes that lurk within dilemmas. They notice tensions yet realize these competing demands can never be completely resolved. Rather than avoiding tensions, they seek to engage them in a productive way. They often value the ways that opposing forces can be interdependent and reinforce one another. Being in this zone can be challenging, uncertain and scary, but also incredibly energizing and motivating. Our research shows that when people are in the engaging zone, they perform at their best, and are most innovative and satisfied with their work.

Resolving zone: Those in the resolving zone try to resolve the discomfort tensions elicit by making decisions between alternative options. They experience significant tensions but are mostly focused on weighing up the pros and cons of alternatives and making decisions about how to choose the right option in a specific situation. These solutions can often move an issue forward, but by being focused on choosing between alternatives, the decisions may limit more creative, generative and integrative approaches. Moreover, by choosing between the alternatives, key tensions and problems tend to resurface. Feeling pressure to make similar decisions in the future, they ultimately can end up stuck in a rut. Our research shows that when people are in the resolving zone, they are less innovative, and less satisfied with their work.

Anticipating zone: Leaders in the anticipating zone engage a paradox mindset, yet experience fewer tensions to apply that mindset, either because they are in environments with limited tensions or because they are simply unaware of them. However, conditions and awareness can change. The environment can undergo change. Greater time pressure, fewer resources and more diverse perspectives may lead to the experiencing of more tensions. In addition, some may uncover tensions that always existed. When tensions arise, these people are likely to reap the benefits of a paradox mindset.

Avoiding zone: When people are in an avoiding zone, they experience limited tensions either because they are in tension-free environment or because they are less aware of tensions. As soon as tensions arise, they seek to avoid the discomfort associated with them by making decisions between alternative options. Our research suggests that people that adopt a more either/or mindset will perform better in situations that involve a lower degree of tensions. However, if the environment changes and introduces more time pressure, fewer resources, more diverse perspectives, these people are likely to avoid tensions by choosing between alternatives instead of searching for integration, resulting in reduced performance, innovation and satisfaction.

“The art of walking upright here is the art of using both feet. One is for holding on. One is for letting go.”
- Glenn Colquhoun

Living in the engaging zone

The four leaders we introduced at the start of the article live and thrive in the engaging zone. They are deeply aware of tensions and appreciate the underlying paradoxes. They both embrace a paradox mindset and are in the right context to leverage that mindset.

For Zita Cobb, advancing a global network of intensely local places depends on embracing diverse and varied perspectives. Doing so involves moving away from reductionist thinking, to adopt holistic approaches. Art offers a way in, inviting new ways of seeing the world that engages paradoxes. To convey this idea, she often quotes the final stanza of New Zealand poet Glenn Colquhoun’s poem: “The art of walking upright here/ is the art of using both feet/ One is for holding on/ One is for letting go.”

Terri Kelly also frequently conveyed the idea of paradox to her organization. When they stressed concerns over feeling the need to be big and small, centralized and decentralized, she reminds her team that our lives require us to breathe in and breathe out. We can’t choose between them.

In addition, these leaders exemplify both/and thinking in their approaches, seeking to engage opposing demands simultaneously.

KerryAnn Rockquemore trains her team to nurture productive conflicts, valuing and leveraging the diversity of their experiences. To do so, she created an educational technology platform that was both profitable and served underrepresented academics.

Likewise, Desa Burton grappled with her career path – whether to follow her long held passions and attend MIT or fulfill her father’s unrequited dream of joining the Naval Academy. Her mother offered her sage advice: “Find your bliss”. With this higher goal in mind, she knew what she had to do. Despite shock from many of her advisors and teachers, she pivoted to the Naval Academy. Yet ultimately, her studies and leaders in the Navy would bring her back to the technologies she had planned to study at MIT. She went on to a successful career in the military, then as a lawyer working on practicing and teaching intellectual property law. She taught law before becoming the executive director of Zip Code Wilmington, the nonprofit organization teaching coding skills to enable people to increase their job prospects. She realized that the common thread for all her work was service and that she did not need to accept the path that people had set for her.

Instead of finding a compromise position, take the opportunities and make them into something that works for you.

The Paradox Mindset Inventory is available for free at


Wendy Smith

Wendy Smith is the Emma Smith Morris Professor of Management at the Lerner School of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware. She has also written a book, Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems, published by Harvard Business School Press.

Marianne W. Lewis

Marianne W. Lewis is Dean and Professor of Management of the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati. She has also written a book, Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems.

Josh Keller

Josh Keller is Associate Professor of Management and Governance at the UNSW Business School at the University of New South Wales. As the leader of the world’s first transdisciplinary, integrated, first-year undergraduate business education, he is helping to foster paradox mindsets among business leaders of the future.

Ella Miron-Spektor

Ella Miron-Spektor is Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD. Her pioneering work on paradox mindset and creativity inspires scholars, leaders, and entrepreneurs to cultivate ‘both/and’ thinking when working in global settings and facing time and resource constraints.


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