HR professionals no longer come up with answers to problems. Nowadays, it’s all about managing the
The thinker without a paradox," wrote Soren Kierkegaard, the
existentialist, "is like a lover without feeling – a paltry
In the West, we have always loved our paradoxes. The paradox of the liar
presented the Athenians with hours of entertainment. How could it possibly be
that the statement ‘this statement is false’ could be true if it was false and
false if it was true?
Meanwhile Heraclitus, philosopher of flux, worried that a river always
looked the same and yet "one cannot step in the same river twice".
Christianity brought with it the world’s most famous paradox with the mystery
of ‘God incarnate’. And while the Enlightenment sought to replace religion with
reason, it still clung to paradox: Rousseau held that some people may have to
be "forced to be free" – before the French revolution introduced the
gory ‘despotism of liberty’.
Work is no stranger to paradox. Employers and employees have a mutual
interest in work based on contradictory imperatives: organisations want the
most work for the least money, while individuals want the most money for the
least work. Yet management writers – incorrigible magpies all – began properly
making hay with paradox in the early 1990s.
With so few clear answers to the world’s problems, attempting to ‘transcend
paradox’ sounded like a fancy way of sitting on the fence when you didn’t have
Charles Handy was one of the pioneers. Much of his 1994 book, The Empty
Raincoat (published in the US as The Age of Paradox), wrestled with gloomy
social collisions. Work, he argued, becomes worth doing economically if it can
attract a price. But the more you put a price on work, the more that vital work
– such as cleaning and teaching – becomes unattractive.
By the turn of the millennium, paradox management was in full swing.
"Effectiveness is inherently paradoxical," wrote Paul Evans, a
professor at Insead, the French management school, in an essay of 2000 called
The Dualistic Leader: Thriving on Paradox. "To be effective, an
organisation must possess attributes that are contradictory, even mutually
exclusive," he suggested.
Flexibility is good, but then so too is strategy. Firms must be global and
local: witness the big-brand supermarkets competing to sell local produce.
Recruiters now seek autonomous self-starters who are consultative team players.
Managers need to delegate and empower – and maintain tight control.
The growing use of paradox is no mere insult to common sense. Complicated
organisations require curious cocktails of capabilities. With grand narratives
out of favour, ‘striking a balance’ and ‘negotiating trade-offs’ are now the
For any student of modern human resources, paradox should be a core module
on the curriculum. How else to understand the profession’s most pressing and
Take the clash between dynamism and equity. There isn’t an HR director in
the land who wouldn’t want both to flourish alongside each other – many claim
they do. And yet the sad truth is that none can have more of one without a
corresponding decline in the other.
Being a dynamic organisation means quick advancement and high rewards for
those individuals diagnosed as talented. They must be nurtured, encouraged,
stretched, and, above all, retained. Doing so involves favouritism – with the
corresponding sense of being slighted from other perhaps equally talented, but
less favoured, workers.
The dynamic organisation responds sharply to events and does not want to be
hidebound by procedures and protocols, codes and consultations, red tape and
box-ticking. Yet it will also indulge the fabulously dynamic fib that it treats
its staff ‘equally’, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The winner-takes-all culture may be paradise for a few, but it creates many
casualties along the way. And for the HR director of this dynamic company,
there is always a nagging doubt that enough is not being made of the collective
contribution. The blatant unfairness demotivates those below star-performer
status. From such worries, pressure to create ‘a level playing field’ to
harness communal discretionary effort inevitably grows.
But as soon as ‘organisational justice’ starts to emerge as a priority,
along come obligations (often statutory ones) that are heavily prone to
inflation. Practices, procedures and policies must be scanned for unfair
disadvantage across recruitment, reward, promotion, learning, grievance and
dismissal. Soon enough there are codes and protocols, pay bands and formulae,
covering multiple eventualities. Maintaining an organisation that takes justice
seriously can be frustrating, bureaucratic and occasionally expensive.
While HR directors are usually convinced the goal of fairness will be
ultimately worth it, a bit of them is left with the suspicion that it’s a
distraction from the priority of generating dynamic performance. And another
part fears that the attempt to be scrupulous and honourable can create in the
process the most suffocating, stultifying places to work that are guaranteed to
kill off any spark of original talent.
Yet, despite the certain collisions, modern organisations need to be both
dynamic and fair. There is no solution, only the possibility of ‘striking a
balance’ and ‘transcending paradox’.
Paradox has thus become a prism through which to see the world – a
psychological reference point. How wise the White Queen of Alice in Wonderland
"In my day," she huffed, "we would believe six impossible
propositions before breakfast."