25. May 2022

How emotions help us navigate paradoxes at work

Original Study: Paradies, C. (2022): With Head and Heart: How Emotions shape Paradox Navigation in Veterinary Work. In: Academy of Management Journal, in press.

The study in one sentence

This study shows the important part emotions play in how we recognize, navigate and respond to paradoxes at work.

Interesting for people who…

… want to learn how to shape the way paradoxes are navigated at work.

What to remember

This brand-new study illuminates helpful insights on one of the biggest challenges we face in todays’ organizations: How to navigate paradoxes? With increasing complexity and volatility, most of us nowadays face conflicting demands embedded in our work, e.g. between profit and caring goals. We’ve been taught that our emotions rather hinder than help navigate paradoxes, and therefore we’ve been advised e.g. to stay emotionally neutral when making an employee redundant. While we know already that blocking our emotions leads to stress, burnout and turnover, the study reveals on top of it that we’ll miss out on learning how to wrestle with life’s paradoxical realities in balanced ways. By allowing ourselves to “feel” the paradox – not only see it rationally from a distance - our personal connection to the tension between the conflicting demands, e.g. profit and care, comes to the surface. This leads us to take ownership of the paradox, which in turn triggers our cognitive flexibility, intuition and creativity to explore balancing alternatives, e.g. to actively help the employee find another job elsewhere, offer job-sharing, etc. As a result, we increase over time our skills in navigating paradoxes intuitively in balanced ways. Being able to tap the freedom and possibility that paradoxical realities entail, we’ll no longer find it fatiguing but energizing.

The most insightful sentence

« [The study] reveals the central role of emotions – and more specifically intuition – in driving how individuals work through paradox and intuitively iterate between competing demands.»

The most provocative sentence

«[This research suggests] that feeling paradox on an emotional level can be a critical mechanism that gives voice to a pole of the paradox that might otherwise remain downplayed.»

Consequences for managerial practice

This study reminds us that we need to question the idea of emotional neutrality as a central feature of professional conduct in organizations. If we want to increase our skills in managing paradoxes, we need to significantly strengthen our emotional awareness and intelligence, particularly in management education and meetings. When it comes to conflicting demands, e.g. between market and regulatory, short-term and long-term, exploration and exploitation goals, etc., the following questions might help in bringing the feelings to the surface: What do my emotions tell me about my connections to both poles of the paradox? How did I work through the emotions of the paradox? Why did I pick one side over another? Further, organizational policies and structures should be revised to provide guardrails, instead of static rules, allowing explicit room for intuitive self-regulatory maneuvers to balance the paradoxes.

Food for forward thinking…

Agility, heterarchy, holocracy, circles, tribes, hybrid workplaces – currently firms experiment a lot with how to structure our work to allow employees more freedom to act in timely manner. However, too much freedom in a (rationally approached) paradoxical reality, will lead to more fatigue, stress, burnout or even criminal misuse. What kind of strategic goals, structures and leadership are needed to guardrail the “right amount” of freedom and nurture the needed emotional culture? I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and ideas! Thanks for sharing – either below or with me directly.
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Human Facts AG
Founder | Managing Partner
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