When resources are scarce, what is the best way to thrive?
With lockdowns closing schools and offices around the world, it’s become commonplace to see dogs and kids barge into business meetings as the boundaries between work and life have blurred. A seamless balance is impossible. We have to do both – work plus managing our lives, our spouses, kids, pets and home – all at once.
Doing both depends on our ability to adopt a paradox mindset, to consider the world with a “both/and” approach instead of an “either/or” one. In times like these, times of change, uncertainty and scarcity, we need to do many tasks together. And people need to feel comfort with discomfort – these hurdles aren’t going away.
Unfortunately, when we experience tensions and competing demands like these, we often react defensively with a zero-sum, either/or approach. The uncertainty, fear and anxiety that have emerged across the world in the last few months make us crave the certainty and clarity that an either/or approach offers us even more. With an either/or approach, we seek to clearly prioritise, for example, between work or family time. However, this leaves us always feeling like we are missing out on something. Not only are resources allocated with this in mind, our “inner talk” – what we say to ourselves about our choices – will reflect that struggle. So, when we are investing time in work, we tell ourselves that we’re neglecting our kids, with all the accompanying blame and guilt. This can lead to negative spirals and vicious cycles. It can create negative emotions.
The paradox mindset suggests an alternative perspective, accepting and learning to live with the tensions associated with competing demands. It is an understanding that these competing demands are not really resolvable, in the sense that they can’t be completely eliminated. For example, work and family life continue, regardless of our choices. Even if these tensions are resolved today, tomorrow will present a different challenge. A paradox mindset shifts the focus from the need to choose between work and family, to instead learn how to constantly balance these demands over time. Even if working at home is challenging, a paradox mindset pushes us to find new ways to integrate work and family that we wouldn’t discover otherwise. Learning how to manage these competing demands more effectively is, strangely, liberating. Those emotional cognitive resources we had allocated to sorting tasks into buckets, making mental lists and feeling concerned that we are not doing enough (not to mention self-flagellation) are now freed up.
In order to succeed, we need to be able to dedicate some time to work but also to family. Constantly balancing the tensions may seem paralysing or threatening at first, but we have a method to help reveal the paradox mindset. In “Microfoundations of Organizational Paradox: The Problem Is How We Think About the Problem”, published in the Academy of Management Journal, together with our co-authors, Amy Ingram, Josh Keller and Marianne Lewis, we tested a theoretical model to unpack individuals’ varied approaches to tensions, including scarcity of resources. We found that although tensions rise when we have limited time and funding, the tensions themselves are not the problem, our mindset is. If we believe that when we address one demand we neglect the other, we are in a constant struggle. With a paradox mindset, we realise that one demand enables the other, and that we need both to thrive. This mere realisation frees up mental resources and drives new solutions, helping employees to improve in-job performance and cultivate innovation.
In our work, we developed a theory on paradox mindset and validated a scale that enabled us to measure it. We explored the mindset of our study participants, which helped us explain when tensions impede innovation and performance and when they enable growth and learning.
A paradox mindset can be cultivated
In this current global lockdown, tensions are increasing. We not only face tensions between work and family, but also between making decisions for the short-term or the long-term, or ensuring physical isolation while enabling social connection. An either/or approach can lead to limited solutions and personal suffering, whereas adopting a paradox mindset actually boosts innovation, creativity and performance. The way we interpret our reality is vital, especially in a time of crisis.