What is the “paradox mindset” and why can it be key to success?

  • Loizos Heracleous y David Robson*
  • BBC Future

5 hours

Image source, Alamy


Contemplating opposing ideas can help innovation.

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Work life often involves a tug of war between various contradictory demands.

Doctors and nurses must provide the highest quality health care at the lowest cost; musicians want to maintain their artistic integrity and earn money at the same time. A teacher has to impose harsh discipline for the good of the class: be “cruel to be nice.”

Being pulled in two different directions simultaneously should apparently only create tension and stress. However, some interesting and counterintuitive research indicates that These conflicts can often work to our advantage.

Through different studies, psychologists and scientists, it has been found that people who learn to accept, instead of reject, opposite demands, show greater creativity, flexibility and productivity.

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Dual restraints actually improve your performance.

Researchers call this the “mentality of the paradox” and it is never too late to start cultivating it.

Think like Einstein

Although this concept may seem counterintuitive, it is inspired by a long history of research showing that the contemplation of apparent contradictions can break our preconceived ideas, offering us entirely new ways of looking at a problem.

Image of a red apple on a green background and of a green apple on a red background.

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Image source, Getty Images


The tension generated by reflection on paradoxical ideas stimulates unconventional thinking.

Albert Rothenberg, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, was one of the first to formally investigate this idea, conducting a study in 1996 on renowned geniuses.

By interviewing 22 Nobel laureates and analyzing historical accounts of deceased scientists who changed the world, he found that each revolutionary thinker had spent considerable time “actively and simultaneously conceiving multiple opposites or antitheses.”

Einstein, for example, contemplated how an object could be at rest and in motion depending on the position of the observer, a consideration that eventually led to his theory of relativity.

To reconcile the ways in which energy acted as waves and particles, Danish physicist Niels Bohrtried pointed out that they existed simultaneously, although they could not be observed together.

This line of thinking finally inspired a surprising new understanding of quantum mechanics.

In addition to these scientists, Rothenberg has examined the biographies of many award-winning writers and shown that their creativity is also often triggered by the contemplation of irreconcilable ideas.

Take the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Rothenberg notes that the drama of The Iceman Cometh It arose from the conflicting wishes of one of the characters that his wife be faithful and unfaithful at the same time.

The power of conflict

Most of us don’t have the genius of Einstein or O’Neill, of course, but a number of studies have shown that “paradoxical cognition” can also help average-minded thinkers solve everyday problems and organizations improve their skills. performance.

In a corporate environment, embracing paradoxes can ignite the spark of creativity.

Image source, Alamy


In a corporate environment, embracing paradoxes can ignite the spark of creativity.

In one of the early studies, Ella Miron-Spektor, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD business school, and her team asked participants to write three paradoxical statements and were told that these could be as banal as the idea of what “sitting can be more exhausting than walking”.

They simply had to list any thoughts that were “seemingly contradictory but nevertheless possibly true.” They were then subjected to two of psychology’s standard creativity tests.

The first was the “remote association test”, which requires participants to find a common word that links three different alternatives. What links “pain, shoulder, sweat” ?, for example.

The answer is cold and if you guessed it, you have been able to detect the hidden connections between various ideas, which is considered essential for many forms of creative thinking.

The second test is known as the “candle problem”.

Participants were shown an image containing various objects on a table: a candle, a pack of matches, and a box of tacks, all of them next to a cardboard wall. They were then given three minutes to figure out how to place the candle on the wall so that it burned properly but did not drip wax onto the table or floor, using only the materials provided.

The accepted answer is to empty the box, place the candle inside, and then nail the box to the wall. But most of the participants did not consider that the box itself could be useful material, so they were completely perplexed in search of a solution.

Miron-Spektor found that participants who had been asked to consider the paradoxical statements tended to perform much better on both tasks, compared to a control group who had simply scored three “interesting” statements.

35% of paradoxical thinkers found the correct solution to the candle problem, compared to only 21% of the control group, a big difference after such simple preparation.

Although the paradoxical statements of the participants were not directly related to the task itself, the contemplation of the contradictory ideas seemed to have freed his thinking from its usual limitations, which means that they were better able to think “outside the box” (or, in this case, inside it).

In the same article, Miron-Spektor showed that this also occurs when we consider the seemingly paradoxical goals found in many works.

People who were asked to reflect on the dual (and seemingly opposite) requirements of minimizing costs and maximizing innovation they were later more creativas than those who only considered one goal or another: somehow, the contradictory demands fueled their thinking.

The paradox mentality

A more recent study, published by Miron-Spektor and colleagues in 2017, has examined the benefits of paradoxical cognition in the workplace of a large manufacturer of consumer products.

The Iceman Cometh

Image source, Alamy


Hickey’s character in The Iceman Cometh grows in the play thanks to his conflicting wishes.

The research team suspected that the answer would depend on the skills and attitudes of each employee, so they first designed a questionnaire to measure the “paradox mindset.”

First, participants were asked to rate statements about their willingness to accept contradictions as:

  • When I consider conflicting perspectives, I gain a better understanding of a problem
  • I am comfortable working on tasks that contradict each other
  • I am inspired when I realize that two opposites can be true

Participants were also asked to describe how often they experienced “resource shortages” at work (the need to achieve high performance with limited time or financial resources). His supervisors, meanwhile, had to rate his performance and innovation within the role.

The study found that the employee’s paradox mindset had a major influence on their ability to cope with demands. For those who scored high, the challenge of dealing with limited resources was exhilarating and inspiring; and their performance improved under stress, so they found new and better solutions to problems in their work.

Those without the paradox mindset, on the other hand, tended to break down and struggle to maintain their performance when resources were scarce.

These findings may be especially important to leaders as there is evidence that the paradox mindset of a manager influences the innovation capacity of their entire team. Companies and institutions that adopt paradoxical strategies tend to outperform their competitors.

Studies by Toyota Motor Corporation have found that certain paradoxes abound in its corporate culture, including the dual goals of maintaining stability while constantly encouraging change. (As the former president of that company Hiroshi Okuda said, “reform the business when the business is good”).

This has resulted in an extremely efficient lean production system that others are trying to emulate. The company is also ranked as one of the most trusted brands and has the highest revenue of any automaker in the world.

Apple, meanwhile, is well known for innovation and quality of design, but few are aware of the extreme efficiency of its operations. These goals combined have enabled Apple to be the most valuable company in the world with a market capitalization of nearly $ 2 trillion.

Creative sparks

How can we capitalize on this knowledge? An obvious step, inspired by Miron-Spektor’s initial study, would be to simply write down any paradoxes that are found and make it a point to contemplate them before beginning to solve problems. If you are mentally stuck, you could further investigate the paradoxes that inspired scientists like Einstein and Bohr.

Greek philosophy is also full of paradoxical ideas that can get your creativity flowing.

Your own work may already contain many contradictory goals that could inspire paradoxical cognition. In the past, you may have assumed that you need to sacrifice one for the other, but if you want to cultivate the paradox mindset, you may spend a little more time considering the ways in which you can pursue both, simultaneously.

Rather than viewing potential conflict as something to avoid, you can begin to view competing lawsuits as an opportunity for growth and a source of motivation. (And if there are no external pressures, you could create your own, asking, for example, how you could increase the efficiency and accuracy of your performance on a particular task, even if only for an exercise in paradoxical thinking.)

There will be no immediate solution, but just thinking about reconciling those issues might still lubricate tu mind to promote further innovation.

The prospect of deliberately accepting conflicting demands may seem arduous, but Chinese researchers have recently shown that people with this mindset get higher satisfaction as well. Apparently there is a joy in reconciling two opposing goals, provided you have the right mindset.

Boost your innovation and success, while having more fun at work? That is a paradox that is certainly worth accepting.

*Loizos Heracleous is Professor of Strategy at Warwick School of Business e associate researcher at the University of Oxford. He is the author of the book Janus Strategy.

*David Robson es autor del libro The Intelligence Trap: Revolutionise Your Thinking and Make Wiser Decisions.

Read the original version of this article at English.


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