The award-winning play Hamilton made pretty much every shortlist of the top theatre experiences of the last two years. Sold-out performances continue unabated in New York all the while it has opened to tremendous fanfare in London. Finally, even I felt compelled to see it. And I… didn’t love it. How could I? After all the hype, no play could have met my out-sized expectations.
Lesson? I should have walked in with lower expectations. In fact, Buddhist philosophy holds that the key to happiness is low expectations. It turns out that this idea translates quite practically in business. What manager hasn’t heard the advice: under-promise and over-deliver?
Being inconsistent has become something of a cardinal sin over the years
But wait a minute! Can it really be good to have low expectations? Not according to Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. According to Dweck, happiness comes to those who are constantly learning and pushing themselves to improve. Don’t settle for doing less, or expecting less of yourself. The greater your expectations, the greater your happiness. Again, the business translation is self-evident: leaders need a growth mindset to advance in their organisations.
Each of these ideas are meaningful, logical, easy to relate to… and completely contradictory. Many readers were probably in agreement with both.
Being inconsistent has become something of a cardinal sin over the years. ‘Flip-flopping’ on any given issue is an accusation that strikes fear into the hearts of many politicians. But holding two opposing ideas in our minds and choosing to favour one over the other at different times doesn’t necessarily make us fickle. It’s how all of us think at times and recognising this duality is a critical leadership skill.
The simple-minded manager looks for consistency. The wise manager is comfortable with paradox.
The best managers are comfortable holding two opposing views because they know the world is complex
The best managers are happy to hold two or more opposing views on an issue because they know the world is complex. And in business, it’s crucial to be able to react to the world in all its complex and paradoxical glory.
Limiting your ideas, observations, or feedback to be consistent with a single logic may be attractive for its simplicity and steadfast allure, but it unnecessarily closes down problem-solving options. And most importantly, it just doesn’t conform with reality.
People and the problems they create, and subsequently try to solve, can come at you in unexpected ways – why let your own narrow thinking make your job tougher than it should be?
Need more convincing? Ever hear that “birds of a feather flock together,” or is it that “opposites attract”? “The clothes make the man,” yet “the man makes the suit.” Or this: “Too many cooks in the kitchen,” versus “many hands make light work.”
I could go on with aphorisms, but let’s shift to business. When I coach managers and ask them to describe their boss, they’ll invariably rely on words like “micromanager” or “delegator”. We like to label people in a narrow way, but when we do so, we miss something subtle but important: simple labels are not only misleading, they also reduce our own opportunity to learn.
This tendency of many of the people I coach to typecast their bosses makes it harder for them to appreciate that managing is a skill full of conflicting priorities and changing pressures.
The wise manager embraces paradox
A good manager is neither hands-off nor hands-on at all times. Effective management requires a constant toggle between being an involved teacher giving real-time direction, and allowing your charges the independence they need to thrive, giving them feedback as needed.
It can be a hard truth for some people to grapple with, but the best bosses are the ones that navigate that paradox according to the changing circumstances of a task or project. They really do create opportunities for team members by delegating responsibility, but they don’t delegate and forget. They pay constant attention. Acknowledging the often contradictory dance any boss has to do between these two duties helps the people I coach solve problems in a much more effective way than they might otherwise have done.
The wise manager embraces paradox.
If this seems hard for you to do, consider the following tips:
- Even though paradox and contradiction remain in the backdrop of our lives, two opposing ideas need not both be true at the same time. This could be straightforward: an idea that failed three years ago may well be the right idea today. Personal digital assistants were massive failures in the 1980s (Newton, General Magic), but in the 2000s mobile devices (same thing, different name) are central to how we now work and live.
- What makes sense for me might not make sense for you. No idea gets 100% market share, meaning that some customisation regarding how each of us works and manages is perfectly natural. And smart. So while delegation and hands-on management can, and often should, co-exist, my leadership style, or the nature of my team, or even the nature of the project my team is working on, can all impact whether I’m more hands-on, or hands-off.
- The worst mistake of all is denying paradox and contradiction. Pretending they don’t characterise the way things really are doesn’t mean they suddenly disappear. But it does mean that you’re walking around with a highly constrained sense of what is going on, and that’s never a good idea. So, no matter how much you believe something to be true, ask whether the opposite may also have some validity. You need not go there, but this type of open-mindedness will help you identify potential risks with your preferred course of action and be in a better position to mitigate those risks.
- Let’s not underestimate the capacity of individuals to hold two ideas in their heads at the same time. Doing so may require people to flip a switch in their brains to accept that both are true, but that’s what wise managers do. In fact, we can all do this, witness how you almost certainly understood my explanation of why I was not enamoured with the Hamilton play, just as you got the power of embracing a growth mindset. Opposite ideas, both true. We spend so much energy striving for consistency, when embracing the reality of paradox is much more powerful.
Despite our best efforts to be as narrow-minded as possible, our brains have the capacity to engage in two opposing views simultaneously
We live in such a polarised world now that it is hard to accept that any one person could believe two opposing views at the same time. But they do. And they should.
Despite our best efforts to be as narrow-minded as possible, our brains have the capacity to engage in two opposing views simultaneously. If that doesn’t inspire hope, I don’t know what will.
Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His latest book is Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016).
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