Call Them Opposites. Call Them Paradoxes. Just Manage Them.

by  Jane Perdue  |  Leadership Development
Call Them Opposites. Call Them Paradoxes. Just Manage Them.

“We’ve been hiring women and minorities like crazy,” shared a client. “But our culture is worse than ever. This diversity stuff doesn’t work.”

I’ve seen his frustration before. Many managers share his view.

Feeling internal and external pressure to have more diversity, some companies define diversity as making the numbers, and task Human Resources with hiring more women and minorities. That’s typically the beginning and end of attention companies give to becoming more diverse.

Until the problems arise – destructive and open conflict, lowered employee satisfaction, and turnover among the recently hired women and minorities. When these issues occur in less evolved organizations, they label the diversity initiative a failure and folks in HR lose their jobs.

However, in other organizations none of this happens after a commitment is made to having greater diversity. Why not? Because in these organizations there’s an appreciation that differences are the sand particles that create the pearls of success.

These organizations get the power of paradox – opposites, duality, or polarity – and manage, in fact maximize, the differences inherent in paradox.

The Smart Leadership™ program of the Center For Women defines this as the process of recognizing, balancing, and using conflicting yet complementary attributes to drive cultural change for success in a global economy.

In organizations which get the power of paradox, leaders transcend us-versus-them thinking. They move beyond visible diversity – gender, race, ability, and age – to valuing deeper, unseen differences of thought, opinion, and perspective. These leaders display four behaviors noted by The B Team as being critical for making diversity a success: cooperation, individual accountability, inclusion, and respect.

5 Leadership Paradoxes For Maximizing Differences

Leaders who know how to make diversity work for them, their teams, and their company have mastered a number of paradoxes including:

  1. Cooperation & Competition – Focus on who is in the in-group and who is in the out-group is replaced by a universal focus on achievement of over-arching company goals. Everyone plays in the same sandbox, and they are expected to, and held accountable for, playing nice.
  2. Inclusion & Exclusion – This one might seem a little counter-intuitive, but not everyone can be a part of everything. The difference is that the reasons for particular work assignments are communicated—before, not after, the fact. People understand that their knowledge, skills, and abilities are needed in other areas to make the overall greater good possible. They’re included where their contribution is the greatest.
  3. Respect & Challenge – Conflict is a normal by-product of diversity. Individuals practicing paradoxical leadership assure that conflict remains healthy and constructive. They practice what philosopher Theo de Boer calls epochè, which is a temporary suspension of the truth of one’s own conviction, as they interact with others.
  4. Freedom & Accountability – Leaders using paradox to leverage the positive power of differences encourage ideas and change, acknowledging that’s the path to innovation and ongoing relevancy. They hold people accountable for making results happen. As The B Team observes, ownership of diversity efforts is the linchpin of success.
  5. Task & Relationship – While effective leaders never lose sight of the bottom line, they don’t favor profits to the exclusion of all else. Rather, they foster and maintain an equal emphasis on profits, principle, and people, and hold those around them accountable for doing the same.

Recognizing and managing paradox requires time, effort, and awareness, but the payoff is well worth the investment. Ready to flex some paradoxical leadership muscle?

Have you seen a leadership paradox come to life?
Photo Credit: Gratisography

About The Author

Articles By jane-perdue
I’m a leadership futurist and well-mannered maverick who challenges stereotypes, sacred cows, gender bias & how we think about power. Love chocolate, TED, writing, kindness, paradox and shoes.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John E. Smith  |  10 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Jane – thanks for a very insightful post on a subject near and dear to me.

I enjoyed and found value in everything you shared, but I particularly liked the second paradox about inclusion and exclusion. I have been part of any organization that approached diversity as a checklist: every project had to have a certain mix of people based on their diversity, rather than on any special skill set or talent that person might offer.

I once watched painfully as a promising young black employee was given responsibility and authority far beyond his current level of expertise, because our leadership team wanted to visibly support diversity in our management ranks. This is a good goal and a proactive company wants to do exactly this … but you have to support the person as they grow into the role, which would apply to anyone being developed as a leader.

In this situation, a vocal few were waiting for visible signs of uncertainty or lack of knowledge around the project which this person was given. Unsurprisingly, with a lack of support, this “evidence” came fairly quickly. The result: One potentially gifted leader receives a shellacking, one organization loses a potentially powerful leader, and the worst cut of all was the resulting and lingering attitude that “those people can’t cut it” … sadly, to my knowledge, this organization still operates under this assumption, referring to this one incident as support for their reluctance to allow anyone non-male, non-white, and non-old into leadership.

To me, this is in the same ballpark as another complaint I have heard from those who are members of a group identified as a diversity goal.

While leaders are sometimes more benign, we still generalize: The first black management employee is asked to represent an entire group of diverse people, who happen to all be black. The “token” woman on the leadership team is assumed to have certain feminine traits, perceptions, and inclinations, simply because of her sex. I could go on, but the issue seems clear. One is asked to speak for all.

As we try to create more diverse teams and workplaces, we sometimes lose track of the unique value of each individual.

However, your contributions through this post and your continued championing of strong and diverse work teams may just change this:).


Jane Perdue  |  12 Aug 2015  |  Reply


Stories like yours just break my heart. They happen too often. They’re unfair. They confirm bias. They’re self-confirming and self-congratulatory, e.g. “we tried it [interpretation: good for us] and it didn’t work [interpretation: you folks are wrong].” Ugh.

As I’m a big fan of the meaning in Samuel Beckett’s quote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” I’ll keep trying to make a dent in furthering diversity and inclusion!

So appreciate your support and kind words!


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