Growth Insights for CEOs

Detach Your Safety Strap and Remove Your Glasses: Five Keys to Managing From Paradox

Posted by Sharon Spooler


Are you wearing your glasses today? If you left your stylish Ray Ban readers at home – the answer is still a resounding yes. As soon as we wake up in the morning, we’re all wearing our own brand of glasses – and the catch is, this particular pair is completely invisible. We often forget we even have them on.

Our “personal glasses” allow us to focus our attention more sharply on some details in life, while allowing us to blur others. We tend to search for, interpret, focus on, and remember information in a way that buttresses our preconceptions about work and life­–what psychologists call “confirmation bias”.

While these secret spectacles offer us positive attributes–allowing us to ascribe our natural talents and life experiences to our team–we often forget our perception, as CEO, is not necessarily the “right” one, or the one that’s best for the group as a whole.

In my last post, we discussed empowering teams through alignment, while defining alignment as the act of everyone on your team moving in the same direction, whether or not everyone agrees it’s the right direction to go.

But what happens when it’s you, the CEO, who doesn’t agree with the direction in which your team is traveling? If the expectation is for the entire group to reach a decision together, can you, or more importantly, should you override the decision with a top-down veto?

In most cases, leaders avoid unilateral vetoes, as they usually impede on trust and teamwork. Doing so may occasionally require you to manage from a position of paradox. That is:

You want to move in a certain direction, but you’re empowering the team to move in another.

As a CEO, you have a fiduciary responsibility to exercise your best judgment, but you also have an organizational responsibility to build effective teams.

Being able to manage from paradox is an increasingly important leadership skill in an era when intellectual capital is king, and knowledge workers are the means of accumulating and exercising it. Here are five keys to mastering this essential skill:

  1. Accept that you’re wearing glasses. Your opinions and beliefs—no matter how well grounded in experience—are still your perspectives. Even when viewing data, we often interpret it from our own points of view. The first step in learning to manage from paradox is to detach the “safety strap” that keeps your glasses immovably fixed to your head.
  2. Acknowledge the value of the glasses your knowledge workers are wearing. In today’s rapidly evolving business environment, companies rely on knowledge workers more than ever—and savvy CEOs are actually hiring people for their glasses. The most valuable things employees bring to work are the experiences, perceptions, beliefs, opinions, values and key learnings that constitute their unique point of view. If decisions are made from only one perspective, these assets will remain largely untapped. Organizational performance will be more like an engine running on fumes than on high-grade fuel.
  3. Learn to look through two pairs of glasses at a time. When thinking about two seemingly conflicting directions, ask yourself: “What would it look like if both were true?” Examine the paradox by looking through two pairs of glasses simultaneously, then consider what you would have to change about your beliefs to look comfortably through the alternative lens. What’s different about the two perspectives? What elements are true in each?
  4. Experiment with a different point of view. One of the best ways for a CEO to manage from paradox is to authorize limited-risk experiments. Empower your team, for instance, to perform a proof-of-concept that will help in evaluating the opportunities and risks of what they want to accomplish. Alternatively, try to apply the proposed strategy to a small, randomly selected sample of customers, comparing results against your current business as usual. The resulting data will help you extrapolate how the proposed approach would impact the business as a whole.
  5. Keep your lenses sharp and clear. At some point, you will put your own glasses back on. The experience of expanded vision, however, will have improved your prescription—and you will see more sharply and clearly. Anyone who purports to have a perspective that’s valuable to the organization, also has a responsibility to work on improving that perspective.

This is the way we stay fresh, relevant, and agile in a world where there’s way too much evolving at once for any one perspective to absorb it all. By detaching your safety strap as a CEO, and allowing for other glasses to assist you in taking in the view, you’ll be able to manage effectively from paradox, grow your team responsibly, leverage capital, and make the most from your diverse group of knowledge workers. 

Topics: Team Building

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