Managing Paradox


One of the most common issues we encounter in our work with leadership teams is the struggle they have in getting their people to be accountable for communicating delivery problems early to allow time for the creation of a solution, as opposed to finding out at the time that something is due that it hasn’t happened.

When I ask the leaders why they think people cover up, hide or try to work problems out themselves rather than talk about them the answers vary but are commonly things like – ‘because they want to try and fix them’, ‘because they don’t want to get into trouble’, ‘because they think they will put their jobs at risk’ etc. I think the first response is related to the second and third. In other words people desperately try to fix the problem rather than talk about it because they believe if they talk about it they are going to get into trouble and potentially put their jobs at risk. At the very least it is about avoiding looking wrong, bad or incompetent.

The conundrum is that leaders in business have to drive from an intention to get things done right, to minimise the risk of problems and yet at the same time they have to create an environment which enables people to speak up when there are problems.

My view is that the source of this issue is people’s relationship to problems. In the main people relate to problems as something wrong or bad, something that shouldn’t happen. We probably learnt that view of problems when we were growing up. But, that view is an illusion. As far as I can tell, life is never a perfect, problem-free experience. There may be periods when there are less problems than at other times, but the real truth is that life is filled with problems – small and big. They are inevitable – they should happen and will happen and in fact the bigger the game you are up to the higher the potential for problems is.

This presents leaders with a paradox: how do you maintain your intention to ensure that efforts are made to do things well and simultaneously give people the message that problems are inevitable and something that should be discussed?

When I raised this with a group of leaders recently, some were horrified at the thought of talking about problems in this way. “We can’t resign ourselves to the inevitability of problems, it’s our job to make sure they don’t happen!” That’s a perfectly reasonable response if you live in an ‘either/or’ world – you either drive hard to minimise problems or you give up altogether – but that’s not what I am talking about.

There’s been plenty written about how to handle the raising of problems at work to create a safe space for them to be discussed, e.g. don’t give people a hard time, yell at them or embarrass them in front of their peers, but that’s after someone has communicated. What has to be created to get people to communicate in the first place!

Holding two seemingly opposing views simultaneously, working within a paradox, is a skill that needs to be learned by leaders in the increasingly complex world we live in. Often what gets in the way is our fixed, unexamined views. We rely on what we know is ‘right’ and don’t critically examine our beliefs when faced with a conundrum, but rather look to blame others or the circumstances for what’s happening. This HBR article illustrates the problem really well.

If you are operating from a belief that problems are bad and should not happen you will end up communicating that to your people. It is possible to be a stand for thorough, well done work to be delivered AND grant space for problems, in fact welcome them? I think so, what it takes is creating a new context for problems for yourself first, and then your people.