May 29, 2022 2 min read

Inherent Paradoxes in Management

Paradoxes are built into the nature of management and leadership.

Leadership and management can  be mind-numbingly frustrating because of the inherent paradoxes and conundrums built into the nature of the beast.

[A]s managers advance to senior positions, they deal increasingly with predicaments, not problems. These require interpretative thinking . . . [because of] paradoxical courses and consequences.

– Henry Mintzberg in Managing

It can be helpful if we know some of these beforehand and thus not get frustrated in the process.

A paradox is not a conflict within reality. It is a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality “ought to be.”

— Richard Feynman

In Being the Boss, Linda Hill and Kent Linebeck outline some of these paradoxes that are built into the nature of managing.

Direct Control vs Indirect Influence
(You are responsible for what others do.)

Work/Deliverables vs People/Meaning
(To focus on the work, you must focus on people doing the work.)

Support vs Judgement
(You must both develop your people and evaluate them.)

Group vs Individual
(You must make your group a cohesive team without losing sight of the individuals on it.)

Team vs Organization
(To manage your group, you must manage the larger context beyond your group.)

Urgent vs Important
(You must focus on today and tomorrow.)

Action vs Reflection
(You must execute and innovate.)

Inflicting pain vs Giving sustenance
(You must sometimes do harm in order to do a greater good.)

Your Team vs Your Organization
(Serving the sometimes conflicting needs of your team and the organization.)

Intimacy vs Distance
(Caring, even close, but focused on the work.)

Clarity/Answers vs Doubt/Questions
(The need to be clear—“here’s how we do what we do”—while remaining flexible in the midst of rapid change.)

Chaos vs Order
(Management and planning require both chaos and order.)

Us vs the Other
(Your personal success now requires that you find satisfaction in the success of those who work for you.)

– Linda Hill & Kent Linebeck in Being the Boss

Another useful list of paradoxes can be found in David Dotlich and Peter Cairo's The Unfinished Leader:

What are some examples of the paradoxes a company leader would encounter? The following list gives the most common competing forces we've identified. Notice how we break these out as sets of single contradictions, in keeping with the way most of us think, although paradoxes may actually present three or more facets.

  • Long term (investments) versus short term (profitability)
  • Company versus function
  • Local versus global
  • Stability versus change
  • Hierarchy versus flat structure
  • Diversity versus meritocracy
  • Core growth versus innovation
  • Control versus delegation
  • Honoring people versus demanding performance
  • Work versus family

Not realizing that these are part of the nature of the beast can lead to endless questioning and frustration.

Reminding ourselves regularly, that these paradoxes make up the conditions of the game rather than obstacles or problems to be resolved, can change our perspective and help to keep a cool head.

How well we handle these paradoxes is also a good marker of maturity and growth.

Further Reading

For a framework for understanding contradictions check out Navigating Contradictions and Paradoxes in Organizations.


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Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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