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?