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Working life often involves the push and pull of various contradictory demands. Doctors and nurses need to provide highest quality healthcare at the lowest cost; musicians want to maintain their artistic integrity while also making a sack full of cash. A teacher has to impose toughdiscipline for the good of the class – being “cruel to be kind”.
Being dragged in two different directions, simultaneously, should only create tension and stress. And yet some exciting and highly counter-intuitive research suggests that these conflicts can often work in our favour. Over a series of studies, psychologists and organisational scientists have found that people who learn to embrace, rather than reject, opposing demands show greater creativity, flexibility and productivity. The dual constraints actually enhance their performance.
The researchers call this a “paradox mindset” – and there never be a better time to start cultivating it.
Think like Einstein
Although this concept may sound counter-intuitive, it is inspired by a long history of research showing that contemplation of apparent contradictions can break down our assumptions, offering us wholly new ways of looking at the problem.
In a corporate environment, embracing paradoxes may spark creativity, efficiency and innovation, though it may seem counter-intuitive to do so
Harvard University psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg was among the first to investigate the idea formally, with a study in 1996 of acclaimed geniuses. Interviewing 22 Nobel laureates, and analysing historical accounts of deceased world-changing scientists, he noted that each revolutionary thinker had spent considerable time “actively conceiving multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously”.
Einstein, for instance, contemplated how an object could be both at rest and moving depending on the position of the observer, a consideration that ultimately led to his relativity theory. Danish physicist Niels Bohrtried to reconcile the ways that energy acted like both waves and particles: states that existed simultaneously, even though they could not be observed together. This train of thought ultimately inspired a startling new understanding of quantum mechanics.
Besides these scientists, Rothenberg has examined the biographies of many award-winning writers, showing that their creativity is also often sparked by the contemplation of irreconcilable ideas. Take the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Rothenberg points out that the drama of The Iceman Cometh grew from the character Hickey’s contradictory desires for his wife to be both faithful and unfaithful to him – at the same time.
The character of Hickey in The Iceman Cometh grows from his contradictory desires, which could be classified as 'paradoxical cognition'
The power of conflict
Most of us do not have Einstein or O’Neill’s genius, of course, but a series of studies have shown that “paradoxical cognition” can also help more average thinkers to solve everyday problems, and organisations to enhance their performance.
In one of the early studies, Ella Miron-Spektor, associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, and her research collaborators asked participants to write down three paradoxical statements. This, the participants were told, could be as banal as the idea that “sitting can be more tiring that walking”; they simply had to list any thoughts that were “seemingly contradictory but nonetheless possibly true”. She then gave them two of psychology’s standard tests of creativity.
The first was the “remote association test”, which requires participants to find a common word that links three different alternatives. What links “sore, shoulder, sweat”, for example? The answer is cold – and if you get it right, you’ve been able to spot the hidden connections between diverse ideas, which is considered essential for many forms of creative thinking.
The second was the so-called “candle problem”. Participants were shown a picture containing several objects on a table: a candle, a pack of matches and a box of tacks, all of which were next to a cardboard wall. They were then given three minutes to work out how to attach the candle to the wall so that the candle burns properly but does not drip wax on the table or the floor – using only the materials provided. The accepted answer is to empty the box, place the candle inside and then tack the box to the wall. But the majority of participants fail to consider that the box itself could be a useful material, leaving them completely stumped for a solution.
Miron-Spektor found that the participants who had been asked to consider the paradoxical statements tended to perform much better on both tasks, compared to a control group who had simply noted down three “interesting” statements. Thirty-five percent of the paradoxical thinkers found the correct solution to the candle problem, for example, compared with just 21% of the control group – a large difference after such a simple prime.
Although the participants’ paradoxical statements were not directly related to the task itself, their contemplation of the contradictory ideas seemed to have freed their thinking from its usual constraints, meaning that they were better able to think “outside the box” (or, in this case, inside it).
In the same paper, Miron-Spektor demonstrated that this also occurs when we consider the apparently paradoxical goals found in many jobs. People who were asked to reflect on the dual (and apparently opposing) requirements of minimising costs and maximising innovation were subsequently more creative than those who only considered one goal or the other: somehow, the contradictory demands fuelled their thinking.
Research has shown that people who take the time to consider paradoxical statements actually end up being better problem solvers
The paradox mindset
A more recent study, published by Miron-Spektor and colleagues in 2017, has examined the benefits of paradoxical cognition in the real workplace of a large consumer-products manufacturer.
The research team suspected that the answer would depend on an employee’s abilities and attitudes, and so they first designed a questionnaire to measure the “paradox mindset”. The participants were first asked to rate statements about their willingness to embrace contradictions, such as:
- When I consider conflicting perspectives, I gain a better understanding of an issue
- I am comfortable working on tasks that contradict each other
- I feel uplifted when I realise that two opposites can be true
The participants were also asked to describe how often they experienced “resource scarcity” at work (the need to perform highly under limited time or financial resources). Their supervisors, meanwhile, had to rate their performance and innovation within the role.
Sure enough, the study found that the employee’s paradox mindset had a large influence on their ability to cope with the demands. For the people who scored highly, the challenge of dealing with limited resources was energising and inspiring, and their performance actually increased under the tension, so that they came up with new and better solutions to the problems within their role. Those without the paradox mindset, in contrast, tended to crumble, and struggled to maintain their performance when resources were scarce.
These discoveries may be especially important for leaders, with evidence that a manager’s paradox mindset influences the innovation of their whole team. Companies and institutions that embrace paradoxical strategies tend to outperform their competitors.
Studies of the Toyota Motor Corporation have found that certain paradoxes are rife in its corporate culture, including the dual goals of maintaining stability while also encouraging constant reform. (As the former chairperson Hiroshi Okuda put it, “Reform business when business is good.”) This has resulted in an extremely efficient, lean production system that others try to emulate. It is also consistently ranked as one of the most reliable brands, and has the highest revenues of any carmaker in the world. Apple, meanwhile, is well known for design innovation and quality, but few are aware of the extreme efficiency of its operations. These combined goals have enabled Apple to be the most valuable company in the world at a market capitalisation of nearly US$2tn (£1.54tn).
How can we capitalise on this knowledge? One obvious step, inspired by Miron-Spektor’s early study, would be to simply note down any paradoxes you encounter – and to make a point of contemplating them before you set about solving problems. If you are stuck for ideas, you could look further into the paradoxes that inspired scientists like Einstein and Bohr. Greek philosophy is also full of paradoxical ideas that might get your creative juices flowing.
Your own job may already contain many contradictory goals that could inspire paradoxical cognition. In the past, you might have assumed that you need to sacrifice one for the other – but if you want to cultivate the paradox mindset, you might spend a bit more time considering the ways you can pursue them both, simultaneously. Rather than seeing the potential conflicts as something to avoid, you can begin to view the competing demands as an opportunity for growth and a source of motivation. (And if there aren’t any external pressures, you could create your own – asking, for instance, how you could increase the efficiency and accuracy of your performance on a particular task, if only for an exercise in paradoxical thinking.) There may be no immediate solution, but the very act of thinking about the possibility of reconciling those issues could still lubricate your mind for greater innovation elsewhere.
The prospect of deliberately embracing competing demands may sound arduous, but Chinese researchers have recently shown that people with this mindset also get greater satisfaction from their role. There is an enjoyment, apparently, in reconciling two opposing goals – provided you have the right mindset.
Boosting your innovation and success, while also having more fun at work? There’s a paradox that’s certainly worth embracing.
Loizos Heracleous is a Professor of Strategy at Warwick Business School and an Associate Fellow at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Janus Strategy.
David Robson is the is author of The Intelligence Trap: Revolutionise Your Thinking and Make Wiser Decisions (Hodder & Stoughton/WW Norton).