Every organization faces various 'positive tensions' that are at the core of today's leadership challenges—including external vs. internal demands and stability vs. flexibility. Here are six action items for leaders to navigate those challenges.
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The Leadership Paradox: Problem-Solver vs. Purpose-Builder
As executives, we face tough decisions on a daily basis, complicated by tensions and competing values that need to be balanced. The number of tensions have only increased on the heels of the pandemic. There are conversations about what flexible work really means. Leaders must be empathetic to what people are dealing with at home, while still holding them accountable to getting work done. They must make sure their employees feel they are being heard, while also making tough decisions about what is best for the organization as well as other stakeholders. The list goes on.
In the book,
Competing Values Leadership (Cameron, DeGraff, Quinn & Thakor, 2014), a balancing framework was developed that has been researched and used with companies around the world for over 30 years. The framework introduces positive tensions that exist in every organization regardless of their size or industry. The construct is worth revisiting now to help make sense of and navigate many of the current and largely unprecedented challenges of leadership.
There are two base level tensions: (1) focusing on external versus internal demands and (2) focusing on stability and control versus flexibility and individuality. These two base level tensions set up secondary positive tensions in the quadrants of the framework. There is the leadership tension of being short-term-focused, delivering on goals, prioritizing and making tough decisions versus collaborating, gathering different viewpoints, creating consensus, and developing employee capabilities. There is the tension of being flexible, open to change, envisioning the future, experimenting and learning from failure versus putting in control systems, processes, procedures, reducing errors and creating efficiencies. Both sides of these different tensions deliver positive outcomes, but they are opposite in their approach. Any one tension taken too far can lead to negative results like burnout, lack of long-term strategies, inability to adjust to a changing world, prioritizing getting along over getting things done, laissez-faire flexibility leading to chaos or a static bureaucracy.
All companies need to do well enough in all the quadrants to succeed, but most companies will be strong in some quadrants and weaker in others. Certain leadership values and beliefs drive the approach of the organization. For example, many manufacturing companies have a lot of controls in place to make sure they can deliver a quality product on time for their customers, but may struggle to be a strategic partner with those customers to help create new innovative products that can be delivered quickly to the market.
It can be tempting to try to figure out how to balance the quadrants. The problem with doing so is that they may become mediocre at everything and great at nothing. On the other hand, organizations who are delivering excellence have often learned how to integrate some of these positive opposites.
These tensions are at the core of many current leadership challenges. An executive recently shared how she was trying to navigate questions around flexible work. Should she continue to allow most of her employees the option of working remotely or should they be required to work a certain number of days at the office? Then she shared some interesting data: Her employees have been more productive since they began working full time remotely, but they are feeling less engaged.
She also shared data on how many employees had left the company and their various reasons for leaving. One common concern was that employees wanted to be able to work 100 percent remotely. But some people who had left the organization subsequently reached out to let her know how much they missed being a part of the culture. They told her that if the right opportunity opened up, they would strongly consider coming back.
As the conversation continued, the focus kept returning to pleasing employees to improve retention. But she was worried the culture they had so carefully cultivated was slowly decaying because people were not connecting as much in person. She was trying to balance individual employee needs with what was best for the larger organization.
She continued to lay out other tensions that she was facing. The more we talked, the more her earlier comments about people being productive but less engaged came into focus, along with what we know about what motivates employees. Self Determination Theory, along with Daniel Pink's work (Author of the book
Drive), tell us that there are four key areas impacting the motivation of employees. The four areas are basically
competence, which is feeling confident that I have the skills and abilities to do my job well while knowing I'm stretched just enough to keep learning and growing;
autonomy, which occurs when I feel in control of my own behavior and goals, knowing the decisions I make will have real impact;
connection, which is when I feel a sense of belonging and attachment to those around me; and
purpose, which is when I'm working toward something that I care about—something that is bigger than me.
Considering the areas above and then taking into account Adam Grant's research (How To Be A Positive Leader, Edited by Dutton & Spreitzer, 2014) which tells us that those who contribute to the larger organization feel more connected to and engaged in the organization, it becomes apparent that leaders need to connect employees to a higher purpose.
In the case of the leader struggling to balance employee and organizational needs, she was asking the wrong question. Her executive team seemed to be endlessly debating percentages of time and various situations that would make sense for remote work. But one reason employees were less engaged could have been that they didn't feel as connected to the organization as they had before. They also were interacting just enough to accomplish tasks, but were not deepening relationships that helped them feel connected.
We decided to shift the focus to discuss the culture the leadership team wanted to create or refresh. We concluded that she should forget whether employees were 100 percent remote or 100 percent in-office, or some hybrid schedule. The more important question was, "What needs to be done to create the culture that would allow people to thrive and deliver great results?"
These new questions moved this executive from problem-solving to purpose-finding. Doing so shifts the challenge from overcoming a negative, to creating a positive and clear desired future. It becomes an opportunity that we are motivated by, engaged in, and building toward.
When we focus on the next problem, we are living in a reactionary state. We are stuck in our normal ways of thinking about solving problems and we may lose track of whether we are solving them in a way that creates the future we want. We can focus so much on problems that it feels de-energizing or even negative in meetings and conversations. Barbara Fredrickson's research on positive emotions teaches us important things about how emotions impact the brain. When we feel negative emotions our mindset narrows. We see fewer possibilities. On the other hand, positive emotions help to broaden our thinking and open us up to more possibilities and ways of thinking. Our psychological state is elevated and we see new possibilities.
Sharot, Riccardi, Raio and Phelps (2007,
Nature, 450, 102-105) expanded that understanding by looking at what happens to the brain when in a state of positive appreciation versus frustration. When feeling a sense of appreciation, more parts of the brain light up than when looking at the brain when frustrated. You are literally smarter.
For the leader and her team described above, clarifying the positive future culture that she deeply wanted to create helped bring the larger purpose into focus, and helped steer clear of conversations about what was wrong.
Gaining a deeper understanding of a company's culture can be facilitated by recognizing which way leaders lean when they face the natural tensions and competing values to (1) collaborate, (2) compete, (3) create or (4) control. Leaders inclinations toward these tensions affect their vision for the future and their strategy for achieving that vision, and they can be either head winds or tail winds in achieving those goals. As leaders face old or new tensions, the current culture will dictate how they approach these challenges. Will executives move into problem-solving rather than purpose-building based on what the current culture dictates?
One challenge of the purpose exercise is that, even though people may be energized by being creative, learning and growing, they also can become overwhelmed by the ambiguity. People need to be stretched a little past their current competence and slightly outside of the current culture because that is where learning and growth occur. In his book,
Adaptive Leadership (Heifetz, 2009), Ronald Heifetz calls this "The productive zone of disequilibrium." If you push people too far out of their comfort zones, they hit a limit in their tolerance and either shut down or push back against the challenge they are facing.
Part of helping employees feel secure in their competence is making sure they have the needed resources to experiment and learn new behaviors to create the desired future. Experimenting and learning also require giving employees autonomy, a key component of self-determination theory. Having a clear purpose that employees care about, feeling competent while growing competence, being given adequate autonomy, and connecting to other employees can unleash energy and motivation throughout the organization.
As leaders work to overcome the paradox of balancing tensions in organizational life, they need to first and foremost fully engage in purpose-finding so that people aren't trapped by the past. This is done by painting a compelling and clear picture of the future that you are trying to create and connecting people's daily work to the larger purpose.
Next, build an expectation across the organization for people to experiment to help reach the desired purpose. That means providing resources, training or whatever is necessary to help employees generate ideas for experiments they can run. Leaders need to build in regular check-ins and mechanisms for people to learn from their experiments and share lessons across the organization.
The leadership team mentioned above continues to have more conversations around the culture they are trying to create and how to engage employees in that process. They have brought together managers to clarify the culture and outcomes they are trying to create. The leadership team and managers are revisiting their values and guiding principles to make sure people believe in and are aligned with them. They are bringing the purpose and principles back into their conversations and decision-making. Ultimately, they are trying to make sure their employees are motivated and engaged by doing what's right both for the organization and for the individual employees. This is the universal challenge facing all leaders.
Action Items for Leaders
As we emerge from the global pandemic, we have witnessed a variety of ways that executives have responded to feeling out of balance in unfamiliar terrain. We've seen how they have tried to navigate and bring their organizations toward some semblance of equilibrium. We've watched them experiment with different ways of trying to balance competing values that could potentially pull their organizations apart.
Trying to craft policies and strategies that balance issues of flexibility versus stability and internal focus versus external focus can lead executives toward endless negotiations as they try to solve new problems that pop up almost daily in an accelerated and shifting world. As leaders, we have often defined ourselves as problem-solvers. This is an important component of leadership that can't be abdicated. But while it may seem contradictory, even paradoxical, our larger contribution may be found in defining ourselves as purpose-builders more than problem-solvers. We can then better engage our employees in a journey to create a culture that helps them learn their way toward solving their own challenging leadership paradoxes.
Shawn Quinn is an adjunct faculty for Executive Education at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. He teaches courses on leadership and change. Shawn plays a role at the university in the Center for Positive Organizations. He is also the founding partner of LIFT Consulting. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Brad Winn, Ph.D., is a Leadership Practice Professor at the Covey Leadership Center and the Executive MBA Director in the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. He serves as a Senior Editor for
People + Strategy and is the Principal of Winn Consulting Solutions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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