One of the issues that leaders commonly grapple with is how to successfully balance two competing ideas. It is a skill that is both rare and extremely powerful.
In the wonderful book, Built to Last
by Jim Collins, he introduced the concept of the "Tyranny of the OR." In his research, he found that great business builders are able to embrace two extremes at the same time. i.e.: purpose AND profit, continuity AND change.
Typically, we often believe we can only accept one competing idea without the other. We tend to believe that things must be A or B.
Known as didactic thinking - we feel pushed to make a decision that is either/or. It also means we tend to favour one side and not consider the opposite. Yet, we don't just do this in our quest to obtain business results, we also do this with our behaviours. The reality is this limits our decision-making and our ability to adapt our behaviours to changing circumstances.
Collins asserted that the most powerfully transformative executives possess a paradoxical mixture of what seems like oppositional qualities such as personal humility and professional will. They are timid and ferocious. Shy and fearless. He believed they are are rare—and unstoppable.
In reality, what great leaders do is push the boundaries and look to manage the tension between two paradoxes. Interestingly, most great leaders aren't even aware they are doing this. In effect, there are two different ways they do this.
The A+B Technique
In the book, Decisive
by Chip and Dan Heath, they referred to a decision-making framework called The Wrap Process.
The first step is Widen your Options. Their research found that teenagers and executives often narrowly frame problems, which leads them to overlooking other options.
The Heath brothers suggestion was rather than defaulting to either/or, we need to be thinking about AND not OR. We need to ask ourselves: How can I combine this AND that? Who do I know who has managed to solve this?
In the book, CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest, by Scott Keller et al,
they found in their research that CEOs look for leaders who can balance short and long term results. This meant that when recruiting new executives to their leadership team, they would search for a leader who could sell and get results quickly, but who did so while balancing the long term needs of the business. In other words, CEOs valued leaders who managed the paradox of near team delivery of results with investing in the long-term. These executives were able to manage the tension between two competing ideas and seamlessly integrate them together.
Testing this common leadership paradox helped CEOs get a good read on how well a potential executive could successfully handle a paradox. A leadership capability that often receives little attention and recognition.
The A+B = C Technique
Rather than combining and balancing two extreme ideas is to actually look at them both and work out what's in the middle.
At a more conscious level, it requires exploring the intersections between two ideas and creating another alternative. Once you consider a third option, it can magically open things up. It also up-levels your leadership.
Let's use a common either/or thinking example that comes up when leaders consider the question "Is trust earned or given?"
Now, if you are like most people I'm sure you can give me a lengthy explanation as to which side you believe and which is right.
The truth is the answer is neither.
Trust is reciprocated. It's an exchange between two or more people. Trust begets trust.
Trust is earned = A
Trust is given = B
Trust is reciprocated = C
Back in the early 2000's, Dr Paul Zak, a neuroscientist, ran a multitude of studies on trust. What he found was that when someone tangibly trusts a stranger the brain produces more oxytocin.
Oxytocin is the happy feeling we get when we are around good friends. It’s that feeling that makes us perform acts of generosity and it is produced through positive social interactions.
When we co-operate and look out for others or when people trust us, oxytocin rewards us with feelings of security, trust, belonging and camaraderie. It creates a virtuous cycle where the more everyone trusts each other, the more they feel better about themselves and each other.
Thinking of trust as just being about one thing versus another is actually too simplistic. It's didactic thinking that feels forced like we're making an ultimatum. And if there is one thing about trust - it's not a binary emotion. It's a complex, interrelated, multidimensional concept that has the ability to magically improve a whole raft of negative behaviours in one fell swoop.
Of course, it's not just with trust that we do this, but a multiple of things. Common workplace ambiguities exist between "People versus Results," "Individual results versus Group results," and "Gut-feeling versus Data analysis."
Rather than look at two opposing extremes, we need to either consider the middle ground or some other positive that arises when you balance out both perspectives. For example, take the negative behaviour of Perfectionist (A) and it's polar opposite Acceptance (B). For many perfectionists, being able to accept work without typos and grammar mistakes is a pretty tall ask. Another option would be to aim for Allowance (both to themselves and others).
The good news is that there are no rules here. You can create the C option in a way that suits your style and abilities.
My challenge for you is that if you want to transform your leadership, then it's time to start considering how you can break open the A/B paradigm that limits your thinking and behaviours. It's time to explore how to unlock your results through combining both A+B or deliberately creating a C option. This even means self-examining your behaviours and reflecting on how you can react in a different way that integrates polarised options.
It's not easy, but it can be done with the right discipline and awareness.