May 29, 2022 3 min read

Types of Contradictions in Organizations

Understanding the different types of contradictions can give leaders useful leverage.
Robert Delaunay Relief Rythme via Wikimedia Commons

Trying to eliminate something that by definition cannot be eliminated, can be a source of constant frustration. Understanding the nature of the challenge and building our vocabulary can give us more opportunities to intervene effectively.

One such thing that cannot be eliminated is paradoxes that are built into the nature of leadership and management.

Organizational life is full of paradoxes and contradictions. Whether we get frustrated by them or leverage them depends on how we view them. Do we view them as obstacles or do we view them as part of the nature of the game?

Paradox I now see to be inevitable, endemic, and perpetual. . . . We can, and should, reduce the starkness of some of the contradictions, minimize the inconsistencies, understand the puzzles in the paradoxes, but we cannot make them disappear, or solve them completely, or escape from them. Paradoxes are like the weather, something to be lived with . . . the worst aspects mitigated, the best enjoyed and used as clues to the way forward.

- Charles Handy in The Age of Paradox

Below is a useful framework to understand and discern the different types of contradictions. It can influence how we go about thinking about them.

In Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics,  Stacey and Mowles outline and differentiate between 4 types of contradictions.

1. Dichotomy

The first is to regard them as a dichotomy, which is a polarised opposition requiring an ‘either . . . or’ choice. For example, managers faced with the need to improve quality, requiring an increase in costs, may also be faced with the need to cut costs. If they think in terms of a dichotomy then they choose one or the other of these opposing alternatives.

– Ralph Stacey, Chris Mowles in Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics

2. Dilemma

Secondly, they could think of the choice facing them as a dilemma, which is a choice between two equally unattractive alternatives. Improving quality is unattractive because it increases costs, and cutting costs means destroying jobs, which is unattractive for humanitarian reasons. Dilemmas also present ‘either . . . or’ choices.

– Ralph Stacey, Chris Mowles in Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics

3. Dualism/Duality

Thirdly, a contradiction may be thought of in terms of a dualism or a duality. For example, managers may be faced with the need to customise their products to meet localised customer requirements, but they may also be faced with the need to standardise their products to meet global competition.

If those managers think about this in dualistic terms then they might come up with the resolution or elimination of the contradiction through ‘both thinking globally and acting locally’. The mode of thinking in dualistic terms has a ‘both . . . and’ structure. Instead of choosing between one or the other, one keeps both but locates them in different spaces or times.

So, in the above example, one pole of the contradiction is located in thinking and the other in acting. The ‘either . . . or’ thinking of dichotomies and dilemmas and the ‘both . . . and’ thinking of dualisms/dualities all satisfy a precept of Aristotelian logic, which requires the elimination of contradictions because they are a sign of faulty thinking.

– Ralph Stacey, Chris Mowles in Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics

4. Paradox

[P]aradox may mean a state in which two diametrically opposing forces/ ideas are simultaneously present, and which are co-constituting: the one suggests and defines the other, neither of which can ever be resolved or eliminated. There is, therefore, no possibility of a choice between the opposing poles or of locating them in different spheres.

– Ralph Stacey, Chris Mowles in Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics

They go on to highlight how the elimination or the non-existence of paradox is equated with success. However, reality is far more nuanced and trying to eliminate paradoxes might not be the best use of our time.

Many theories of organisation emphasise either/or choices. They prescribe either stability and success, or instability and failure.

They usually do not recognise paradox as fundamental and, when they do, they prescribe some kind of harmonious, equilibrium or balance between the choices. In this way the paradox is in effect eliminated; its existence is a nuisance that is not fundamental to success.

Alternatively they argue that paradox can somehow be harnessed for the good of the company, again assuming that managers or leaders can take up a position outside the paradox and manipulate it to given ends.

– Ralph Stacey, Chris Mowles in Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics

This kind of “either/or approach” to challenges and being “allergic” to paradoxical problems can be pervasive in organizations including consultants brought from the outside.

This is also why often our organizations can get cynical, because people on the ground know the actual realities of the situation. They know that the situation is not as straightforward  as what the change leader or consultant is trying to portray.

The real opportunity might be in embracing the paradox and delving in it rather than trying to eliminate it.

Liked this article? You will dig The Managerial Mind on Mondays newsletter. It's free and every edition covers essential frameworks on leadership, careers, and organizations in bite sized form.

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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