The Daily Sabbatical/Rotman | May 6, 2013 | 11212 views

The Benefits of Embracing Conflict and Integration

If a paradoxical frame is not activated, the employee is likely to focus on only one dimension and not the other, missing the opportunity to achieve both


odern organizations are rife with tensions and paradoxes, requiring the people within them to integrate conflicting agendas and contradictory demands on a regular basis.  For instance, product developers have to consider cost issues and follow specifications when developing new ideas. Typical reactions to contradictory demands include a sense of threat, defensiveness, and a tendency to focus on one demand at the expense of the other.

To facilitate the integration of conflicting agendas and contradictory demands, individuals can adopt what University of Cincinatti Professor Marianne Lewis calls ‘paradoxical frames’.  A paradoxical frame is activated when a problem is identified, its contradictory elements are revealed and explored, and alternative solutions are found and tested. The problem solver acknowledges the tension between opposing task elements, yet understands that combining them tempers the undesirable side effects of each element alone and leads to new solutions that integrate both elements. 

Francesca Gino is an associate professor of Business Administratoin at Harvard Business School
Francesca Gino is an associate professor of Business Administratoin at Harvard Business School

We have all received directions that seem contradictory. For example, “Make sure everything is planned and organized for the release of our new product; but also be sure to remain flexible so that we can deal with last-minute requests from customers in a timely manner”. If a paradoxical frame is activated when an employee receives these directions, she will recognize the inherent incompatibility of simultaneously achieving high levels of planning and flexibility, but she will also understand the potential for planning and flexibility to positively reinforce one another. Planning and organizing, for example, can help prepare for alternative reactions of customers and thus enable greater flexibility when addressing their needs.

If a paradoxical frame is not activated, the employee is likely to focus on only one dimension and not the other, missing the opportunity to achieve both. Instead of eliciting such ‘either/or’ thinking, paradoxical frames elicit the type of ‘both/and’ thinking that can result in the discovery of links between opposing forces and the generation of new frameworks and ideas.  

Paradoxical frames may be especially effective in helping people perform creative tasks, because they encourage the juxtaposition of inconsistent elements and therefore increase the breadth of attention and the accessibility of knowledge related to the different elements. Research indicates that a broader attentional span and diverse knowledge foster the generation of new connections between activated elements:  Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile and her colleagues have shown that the larger the number of cognitive elements that are relevant to the task and activated during the ideation process, the higher the likelihood that unusual associations or solutions will be generated and the larger the pool of available novel ideas.

When solving a problem, individuals generally draw primarily on typical thinking, implicit assumptions and prior experience. Consciously adopting paradoxical frames reduces the likelihood that the thinker will fall back on conventional lines of thought. Paradoxical frames may also increase individuals’ capacity to tolerate different perspectives and to integrate these different perspectives by generating new linkages among them – increasing what has been called ‘integrative complexity’.

Integrative complexity was originally conceived to reflect individual differences in thinking style: individuals who are low on integrative complexity dislike ambiguity and dissonance, seek cognitive closure, and tend to form dichotomous (good-or-bad) impressions of other people. In contrast, individuals who score high on integrative complexity have a more flexible, open-minded, and multidimensional stance toward the world. These individuals are able to recognize contradictions and can tolerate inconsistencies in others’ motives and behaviour.

Adopting paradoxical frames is likely to increase the sensitivity to contradictory elements in an environment as well as the capacity to understand them and search for ways to combine them. The mental activation of contradictory elements leads to deep examination and improved understanding of each element. This deeper exploration of concepts and categories increases the generation of ideas related to the category and enhances creativity. Activating paradoxical frames also stimulates the integration of opposing elements, and forming new linkages and synergies between commonly unrelated or opposing elements is a vital source of creativity.

Consider, for instance, the creativity-cost efficiency tension that is often present in product development settings. Viewing this tension through a paradoxical lens enables the search for new solutions in which creativity and efficiency coexist and reinforce each other. When differentiating between creativity and efficiency, individuals realize that, while creativity requires exploration, risk taking, flexibility, and tolerance of mistakes, efficiency, by contrast, is associated with exploitation, adherence to constraints, and structure. By contrasting these elements, individuals gain a better sense of the antecedents and consequences of each element and as a result, can integrate them more effectively, searching for new strategies, processes, and structures that allow for their co-existence.

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Comments (2)
Allison Conte May 23, 2013
Glad to see that academia is "on it" with this topic. Two things come up for me when I read this. I wonder if you are aware that this type of both/and thinking develops over time, from quite limited either/or mindsets to very creative ways of holding paradox. The ability to hold polarity as a both/and construct is a milestone in human development, and not everyone gets there... This point is explained in Beena Sharma and Susann Cook-Greuter's 2010 paper, "€œPolarities and Ego Development: Polarity Thinking In Ego Development Theory and Developmental Coaching."€

Also you may be interested in Barry Johnson's theory of Polarity Thinking. You can find it on the Web at

FYI, I've recently written a paper about all of this which I'll present at the Integral Theory Conference in July.

Let me know if you are interested in hearing more... And best wishes for continued learning and application of your very interesting research!

Allison Conte
Principal, MetaIntegral Associates
Kedar May 22, 2013
Interesting. But I disagree to make this a blanket principle. Here is why.

There is a zen story about paradoxial frame activation. I have written about it on my blog.
(Sorry I feel like I am pimping my blog. But I feel that is highly relevant.)

In evolution of any idea, there is a benefit to "diversity", generate more ideas, only in a certain phase. This conflicting objective thing might be good to get a discussion going, to expose the assumptions, to gel a team. Beyond a certain point, you are generating garbage.

Today's innovation folks seem every ideas as a lottery ticket, a purely random card with significant upside potential. So more is better. But that's not true. You incur cost in generating and evaluating ideas as well.

Truly groundbreaking ideas and efforts result when there is a central theme to thinking and there are minimum constraints. This is hardest part for managers to get. You can create culture where this kind of productive spontaneity thrives. But it requires you to let go of control and take a back seat more than to introduce a bunch of rules and initiatives.
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