What Happens When Two Competing Ideas are True in Managing People?

In teaching and in writing, I use a fair number of continuums to help move us off the traps of binary thinking. Our language tends to be in competing constructs that can obscure more nuanced views of reality, such as nature or nurture, fixed or growth mindset, smart or not smart, etc.* Sometimes these binary categories adequately represent reality when there are discrete shifts, but more often than not, they take us toward untenable extremes, open to so many counterexamples, that we may be whipsawed back-and-forth before we must admit that they are both partially true (e.g. it’s nature and nurture).

While continuums are useful, and they help us see how we might move back-and-forth along some binary given the context, there is another way of directly addressing the limits of our language—by understanding paradox.

If you are like me, however, when someone begins speaking about paradoxes, it seems like an overreaching attempt at being profound. I’ll try to avoid this trap as I describe what I think is a compelling research study on paradoxical leader behaviors (PLBs) that was recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.

In the article by Yan Zhang and colleagues, the researchers outline five dimensions of paradoxical leader behaviors, (I’ve included a sample measurement item in quotes):

  1. Treats subordinates uniformly while allowing individualization: “Assigns equal workloads, but considers individual strengths and capabilities to handle different tasks” (p. 548).
  2. Combines self-centeredness with other-centeredness: “Is confident regarding personal ideas and beliefs, but acknowledges that he or she can learn from others” (p. 548).
  3. Maintains decision control while allowing autonomy: “Makes decisions about big issues, but delegates lesser issues to subordinates” (p. 548).
  4. Enforces work requirements while allowing flexibility: “Is highly demanding regarding work performance, but is not hypercritical” (p. 548).
  5. Maintains both distances and closeness: “Maintains distance from subordinates at work, but is also amiable toward them” (p. 548).

These behaviors help us see continuing tensions that occur in management. You want high standards, but not to the extreme of being hypercritical; You also want close relationships, but you are not best friends; And you want to give employees autonomy but it needs to be balanced with control. Zhang et al. (2015) describe these as paradoxes because “rather than being ‘either–or,’ all things, including problems and challenges, are interrelated as ‘both–and’” (p. 539).

You might argue, however, that a person in a leadership role should flexibly shift their approach in either direction given the context, making this just a re-packaging of situational leadership and contingency theory. In response, the authors argue that choosing between these tensions should not be perceived as a “necessary evil,” as situational theorists might, but instead “to sustain long-term effectiveness, leaders must accept and harmonize paradoxes simultaneously” (p. 539). I’m not sure that contingency theorists would see choosing as a “necessary evil,” but the authors make a fair point about the need to harmonize and see the tensions as occurring simultaneously, rather than shifting behaviors discretely at different times. Although, perhaps it is both. In some conditions you are balancing these competing tensions, and in others you are shifting discretely.

Nevertheless, the research brings clarity to what can be hidden tensions, and the authors’ balanced approach helps overcome polemics about management derived from a selective reading of research (e.g. “Give everyone autonomy.”)

While these paradoxical leader behaviors are descriptively helpful, Zhang et al. (2015) also find that supervisors who scored higher on a combined measure of paradoxical leader behaviors had positive effects on subordinates. Specifically, in a sample of 76 supervisors and 588 subordinates across six companies in China, subordinates had higher work role performance as measured by scales of proficient, adaptive, and proactive behavior. But why would this be the case?

The authors argue that a leader serves as a role model “to show employees how to accept and embrace contradictions in complex environments” (p. 545), which leads to more effective action. Second, the authors argue that paradoxical leader behaviors more effectively create bounded and discretionary work environments. As they state, “bounded environments stress norms and standards whereby followers understand their work roles and responsibilities. At the same time, PLB gives followers discretion and individuality within the structure, allows them to be the focus of influence to maintain their dignity and confidence” (p. 545).

All of this sounds intuitively plausible and brings an Eastern perspective to harmonizing competing tensions. It also helps build additional nuance into our thinking, (see an earlier post on mental complexity).

As you think about the five paradoxical leader behaviors listed above, which one resonates the most with you? Are there other paradoxes related to managing that you would include? When does an “either/or” perspective seem to obscure the phenomenon, and “both/and” is needed?


Walker, B. M. & Winter, D. A. (2007). The elaboration of personal construct psychology. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 453-477.

Zhang, Y., Waldman, D. A., Han, Y-L., & Li, X-B. (2015). Paradoxical leader behaviors in people management: Antecedents and consequences. Academy of Management Journal, 58(2), 538-566.

*This is often referred to as our “personal constructs” derived from George Kelly’s (1955) The Psychology of Personal Constructs. For an updated overview of personal construct psychology, see Walker & Winter (2007).

Ryan Smerek is an assistant professor and assistant director of the MS in Learning and Organizational Change program at Northwestern University. He is the author of Organizational Learning and Performance: The Science and Practice of Building a Learning Culture.

Photo Source: Pixabay/Geralt

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