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Toward A Theory of Paradox: A Dynamic

Equilibrium Model of Organizing


Impact Factor: 6.17 DOI: 10.5465/AMR.2011.59330958


190 1,756


Wendy K. Smith
University of Delaware


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letting you access and read them immediately. Retrieved on: 10 January 2016
Academy of Management Review
2011, Vol. 36, No. 2, 381403.


University of Delaware

University of Cincinnati

As organizational environments become more global, dynamic, and competitive,

contradictory demands intensify. To understand and explain such tensions, academ-
ics and practitioners are increasingly adopting a paradox lens. We review the para-
dox literature, categorizing types and highlighting fundamental debates. We then
present a dynamic equilibrium model of organizing, which depicts how cyclical
responses to paradoxical tensions enable sustainabilitypeak performance in the
present that enables success in the future. This review and the model provide the
foundation of a theory of paradox.

Organizing raises multiple tensions, such as 1965) inspired decades of research exploring
collaboration-control (Sundaramurthy & Lewis, how contexts influence the effectiveness of op-
2003), individual-collective (Murnighan & Con- posing alternatives. For example, contingency
lon, 1991), flexibility-efficiency (Adler, Goldoftas, theory explores the conditions that drive choices
& Levine, 1999), exploration-exploitation (Smith between exploratory and exploitative (i.e., Tush-
& Tushman, 2005), and profit-social responsibil- man & Romanelli, 1985), cooperative and com-
ity (Margolis & Walsh, 2003). As environments petitive (Deutsch, 1968), mechanistic and or-
become more global, fast paced, and competi- ganic (Burns & Stalker, 1961), and centralized
tive, and as internal organizational processes and decentralized (Siggelkow & Levinthal, 2003).
become more complex, such contradictory de- Paradox studies adopt an alternative ap-
mands become increasingly salient and persis- proach to tensions, exploring how organizations
tent (Lewis, 2000). Leaders responses to these can attend to competing demands simultane-
tensions may be a fundamental determinant of ously. Although choosing among competing ten-
an organizations fate (Quinn, 1988). sions might aid short-term performance, a par-
Contingency theory offers one response to ten- adox perspective argues that long-term
sions. Assuming that organizational systems sustainability requires continuous efforts to
are most effective when they achieve alignment meet multiple, divergent demands (Cameron,
or fit among internal elements and with the ex- 1986; Lewis, 2000). Discussions of paradox from
ternal environment, this approach explores con- the late 1980s (Cameron & Quinn, 1988; Smith &
ditions for selecting among competing de- Berg, 1987) motivated research in such domains
mands. Early contingency theory from the late as innovation (Andriopoulos & Lewis, 2009;
1960s (i.e., Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967; Woodward, Tushman & OReilly, 1996), change (Seo & Creed,
2002), communication and rhetoric (Jarzab-
kowski & Sillince, 2007; Putnam, 1986; Trethewey
We appreciate the provocative and engaging conversa-
tions with Jean Bartunek, Mike Beer, Kim Cameron, Jeffrey
& Ashcraft, 2004), identity (Fiol, 2002), and lead-
Ford, Paula Jarzabkowski, Joshua Margolis, Robert Quinn, ership (Smith & Tushman, 2005).
Mike Tushman, and Andy Van de Ven that helped launch As an alternative to contingency theory, the
this article. We thank Amy Ingram for her research assis- paradox literature has become increasingly
tance and the participants of the 2010 European Group for crowded. Yet, even so, insights from a paradox
Organization Studies (EGOS) Subtrack on Paradox for their
feedback. Finally, we appreciate the valuable comments
perspective are limited by fundamental debates
and advice from guest editor Quy Huy and three anonymous about the nature and management of paradoxi-
reviewers. cal tensions. What isand is nota paradox?
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382 Academy of Management Review April

Are tensions that underlie paradox inherent in sion, and fuel further studies of organizational
organizational systems, or are they socially con- paradox.
structed? Can leaders and organizations resolve
tensions, or must they accept their persistence?
And, most critical to leaders, how do varied
management strategies for approaching para-
dox impact organizational outcomes? To examine the paradox perspective, we sur-
Our goal is to sharpen the focus of a paradox veyed studies in the past twenty years across
lens, thereby enabling scholars to more effec- twelve management journals.2 We found that
tively apply this perspective to organizational scholars have increasingly adopted a paradox
tensions. To do so, we focus on two main objec- perspective, with accumulating studies span-
tives. First, we review and synthesize a vast ning organizational phenomena and levels of
array of existing paradox literature. We define analysis. Within our sample we found 360 arti-
paradox as contradictory yet interrelated ele- cles focused on organizational paradox. The
ments that exist simultaneously and persist number of these articles grew at an average rate
over time. This definition highlights two compo- of 10 percent per year. In addition, several spe-
nents of paradox: (1) underlying tensionsthat cial issues in journals beyond our sample at-
is, elements that seem logical individually but tended to organizational paradox (e.g., Journal
inconsistent and even absurd when juxta- of Organizational Behavior, volume 28, issue 5;
posedand (2) responses that embrace tensions Journal of Organizational Change Management,
simultaneously (Lewis, 2000).1 Based on our re- volume 19, issue 4). Even as research adopting a
view of the literature, we propose an organizing paradox perspective has expanded dramati-
framework for categorizing paradoxical ten- cally, this review highlights the lack of concep-
sions while identifying points of divergence tual and theoretical coherence. We synthesize
across varied studies. This first section of our the literature through an organizing framework
paper contributes a synthesis of the paradox that categorizes paradoxes while highlighting
literature, highlighting its breadth and depth key theoretical debates around definitions, as-
and surfacing fundamental debates. sumptions, and management strategies.
Our second objective is to integrate existing
literature and offer responses to these funda-
mental debates. We clarify the distinctions be- Organizational Paradoxes: Categorizing
tween our definition of paradox and similar con- Diverse Applications of a Paradox Perspective
structs, such as dilemmas and dialectics. We We catalog paradoxes of belonging, learning,
propose a dynamic equilibrium model of orga- organizing, and performing. This framework
nizing, which suggests that tensions are inher- builds from previous worknamely, Lewiss
ent and persistent and depicts how purposeful
and cyclical responses to paradox over time en-
able sustainabilitypeak performance in the
present that enables success in the future. This We focused on the years 19892008, which include the
twenty years following publication of Cameron and Quinns
section of our article contributes an integrative
influential book, Paradox and Transformation: Toward a
model with explicit propositions that clarify un- Theory of Change in Organization and Management, in 1988.
derlying assumptions, provide a platform for on- We surveyed four journals illustrative of U.S. scholarship
going research, and propose a means for long- (Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Manage-
term sustainability. Together, this review and ment Review, Administrative Science Quarterly, Organiza-
tion Science), four indicative of European scholarship (Hu-
the model provide the foundations of a paradox
man Relations, Journal of International Business Studies,
theory, which can offer clarity, provoke discus- Journal of Management Studies, Organization Studies), and
four providing a practitioner focus (Academy of Manage-
ment Executive, California Management Research, Harvard
Reflecting the dominant use of paradox, we focus on Business Review, Long Range Planning). We identified all
underlying tensions as dualities between two elements articles that used the words paradox, contradiction, tension,
(Ford & Backoff, 1988). Later in our discussion we explore duality, polarity, and/or dialectic in their titles, abstracts, or
how these ideas might expand to relate to more complex keywords. We analyzed the abstracts, examining full arti-
trialectics (Ford & Ford, 1994) or pluralistic tensions (Jar- cles when unsure, to confirm that paradoxical tensions and
zabkowski & Sillince, 2007). a both/and focus were central to the work.
2011 Smith and Lewis 383

Categorization of Organizational Tensions

Learning::Belonging Learning::Organizing
Efforts to adjust, renew, change, and innovate Organizational routines and
Conflicts between the need for
foster tensions between building upon and capabilities seek stability, clarity,
adaptation and change and the
destroying the past to create the future focus, and efficiency while also
desire to retain an ordered sense of
self and purpose enabling dynamic, flexible, and agile
(e.g., March, 1991; Senge, 1990; Weick & outcomes
(e.g., Fiol, 2002; Ibarra, 1999; O'Mahony Quinn, 1999)
& Bechky, 2006) (e.g., Eisenhardt & Martin, 2000; Teece
& Pisano, 1994)
Tensions between the individual and Organizing
the aggregate, individuality vs.
Belonging Structuring and leading foster collaboration
collective action
Identity fosters tensions between the and competition, empowerment and
individual and the collective and between (e.g., Andriopoulos & direction, and control and flexibility
competing values, roles, and memberships Lewis, 2009; Dweck, 2006; (e.g., Murnighan
& Conlon, 1991;
Tushman & O'Reilly, 1996)
Smith & Berg, (e.g., Adler, Goldoftas, & Levine, 1999; Denison,
(e.g., Badaracco, 1998; Brewer, 1991; Huy, 2002; Hooijberg, & Quinn, 1995; Flynn & Chatman, 2001;
Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Pratt & Foreman, 2000) Building capabilities for the future Ghemawat & Costa, 1993; Luscher & Lewis, 2008;
while ensuring success in the present Siggelkow & Levinthal, 2003)

Performing::Belonging Performing Performing::Organizing

Clash between identification and Plurality fosters multiple and competing Interplay between means and ends,
goals as actors negotiate individual goal as stakeholders seek divergent employee vs. customer demands, high
identities with social and organizational success commitment vs. high performance
occupational demands

(e.g., Dukerich, Golden, & (e.g., Eisenstat, Beer, Foote, Fredberg,

(e.g., Denis, Langley, & Rouleau, 2007; & Norrgren, 2008; Gittell, 2004; Kaplan
Shortell, 2002; Kreiner, Hollensbe, & Donaldson & Preston, 1995; Jarzabkowski &
Sheep, 2006) & Norton, 1996)
Sillince, 2007; Margolis & Walsh, 2003)

(2000) review, which applied the first three cat- (OReilly & Tushman, 2008). Such tensions reflect
egories, and Luscher and Lewiss (2008) induc- the nature (Abernathy & Clark, 1985; Ghemawat
tive action research, which identified the latter & Costa, 1993) and pace (Weick & Quinn, 1999) of
three. Further, these categories mirror those engaging new ideas, including tensions be-
identified in the early paradox research, reflect- tween radical and incremental innovation or ep-
ing Quinns (1988) competing values (learning- isodic and continuous change.
adhocracy, belonging-clan, organizing-hier- Complexity and plurality drive belonging par-
archy, performance-market). 3 We identify adoxes, or tensions of identity. These tensions
exemplars that illustrate each category, as well arise between the individual and the collective,
as tensions at their intersections (see Figure 1). as individuals (Brewer, 1991; Kreiner, Hollensbe,
The four categories of paradox represent core & Sheep, 2006) and groups (Smith & Berg, 1987)
activities and elements of organizations: learn- seek both homogeneity and distinction. At the
ing (knowledge), belonging (identity/interper- firm level, opposing yet coexisting roles, mem-
sonal relationships), organizing (processes), and berships, and values highlight tensions of be-
performing (goals). Learning paradoxes surface longing (Badaracco, 1998; Huy, 2002; Markus &
as dynamic systems change, renew, and inno- Kitayama, 1991; Pratt & Foreman, 2000). Golden-
vate. These efforts involve building upon, as
Biddle and Rao (1997), for instance, found that
well as destroying, the past to create the future
competing identities emerge among not-for-
profit board members, creating conflict and am-
We thank an anonymous reviewer for highlighting the
biguity regarding strategic action.
similarities of this categorization to Quinns (1988) frame- Organizing paradoxes surface as complex
work. systems create competing designs and pro-
384 Academy of Management Review April

cesses to achieve a desired outcome. These customer demands (Gittell, 2004) and between
include tensions between collaboration and seeking high commitment and high perfor-
competition (Murnighan & Conlon, 1991), em- mance (Eisenstat, Beer, Foote, Fredberg, & Norr-
powerment and direction (Denison, Hooijberg, & gren, 2008). Belonging and performing tensions
Quinn, 1995), or routine and change (Flynn & emerge when identification and goals clash, of-
Chatman, 2001; Gittell, 2004). For example, man- ten apparent in efforts to negotiate unique indi-
ufacturing depends on systems that can enable vidual identities with social or occupational de-
control and flexibility (Adler et al., 1999; Osono, mands (e.g., Dukerich, Golden, & Shortell, 2002).
Shimizu, & Takeuchi, 2008). Kreiner and colleagues (2006) noted this tension
Performing paradoxes stem from the plurality as priests grappled with maintaining their
of stakeholders and result in competing strate- sense of self while fulfilling their professional
gies and goals. Tensions surface between the
roles. Finally, belonging and organizing efforts
differing, and often conflicting, demands of
intersect via tensions between the individual
varied internal and external stakeholders
and the aggregate. Organizing involves collec-
(Donaldson & Preston, 1995). As an illustration,
tive action and the subjugation of the individual
corporate social responsibility highlights a
double bottom line, in which performance de- for the benefit of the whole. Yet organizing is
pends on financial and social goals (Margolis most successful when individuals identify with
& Walsh, 2003). the whole and contribute their most distinctive
Tensions operate between as well as within personal strengths (Murnighan & Conlon, 1991;
these categories. Learning and performing spur Smith & Berg, 1987).
tensions between building capabilities for the These reviewed studies highlight the richness
future while ensuring success in the present and scope of a paradox perspective. Conflicting
(Andriopoulos & Lewis, 2009; Tushman & yet interrelated elements have been identified
OReilly, 1996; Van Der Vegt & Bunderson, 2005). across a range of organizational phenomena
Related studies examine the inconsistent mind- and across differing levels of analysis. Exem-
sets (Dweck, 2006) and norms (Ghoshal & Bart- plars articulate tensions at the level of the indi-
lett, 1994; Gibson & Birkinshaw, 2004) that sup- vidual (Markus & Kitayama, 1991), dyad (Argyris,
port these contradictory efforts. Tensions 1988), group (Smith & Berg, 1987), project (van
between learning and belonging reflect con- Marrewijk, Clegg, Pitsis, & Veenswijk, 2008), and
flicts between the need for change and the de- organization (Cameron & Quinn, 1988). More-
sire to retain a developed sense of self and pur- over, the same tensions can exist across each of
pose. Organizational identities often become these levels. For example, tensions between
enablers and obstacles to development and learning and performance surface at the level of
change (Dutton & Dukerich, 1991; Zilber, 2002). the individual (Dweck, 2006), group (Van Der
Individuals face this tension as they assume Vegt & Bunderson, 2005), top management team
new roles (Ibarra, 1999; OMahony & Bechky, (Bunderson & Sutcliffe, 2003), and firm (Ghoshal
2006), while firms embody such contradictions
& Bartlett, 1994). Furthermore, paradoxical ten-
as they mature from entrepreneurial to more
sions may be nested, cascading across levels,
established stages (Fiol, 2002). Organizing and
as the experience at one level creates new chal-
learning tensions surface in organizational ca-
lenges at another. For example, organizational
pabilities that seek focus and efficiency while
also enabling change and agility. The demand efforts to explore and exploit create tensions
for dynamic capabilities creates tensions in that are experienced by individual leaders and
seeking to continuously renew and alter stable senior teams (Smith & Tushman, 2005), middle
routines (Teece & Pisano, 1994). For example, managers (Huy, 2002), and individual employees
Eisenhardt and Martin (2000) argued that for ca- (Gibson & Birkinshaw, 2004). In their compara-
pabilities to be truly dynamic, the routines tive case studies, Andriopoulos and Lewis (2009)
themselves must be flexible and versatile. identified nested innovation tensions of strate-
Tensions between organizing and performing gic intent (profit-breakthroughs), of each proj-
can be summarized by the interplay between ects customer orientation (tight-loose coupling),
means and ends or process and outcome, appar- and of designers own personal drivers (disci-
ent in conflicts between meeting employee and pline-passion).
2011 Smith and Lewis 385

Remaining Gaps: Debates in since they are defined by boundaries between

Paradox Research self and other, individuality and collaboration,
and ingroup and outgroup. In contrast, a social
Our review highlights exemplars that can
construction view presumes that individuals sit-
guide future research, but it also suggests gaps
uate tensions within a particular time or space
that thwart a more cohesive understanding of
(Poole & Van de Ven, 1989) or create them
paradox and a more unified paradox commu-
through cognitive frames or dialogical mixed
nity. To be more specific, debates swirl around
messages (Argyris, 1988; Putnam, 1986). In their
the conceptualization of paradox, the ontologi-
qualitative study, El-Sawad, Arnold, and Cohen
cal nature of paradoxical tensions, and strate-
gies to respond to these tensions. (2004) examined how actors construct paradoxi-
The lack of conceptual clarity in this field is cal tensions, such as ones opposing yet inter-
evident in the varying language adopted to de- connected roles as a loyal manager and a grass-
scribe tensions, including paradox, di- roots employee, and then use rhetoric to reduce
lemma, dichotomy, and dialectic. Moreover, their awareness of doing so. They called such
a number of organizational fields refer to simul- avoidance doublethink. This ontological dis-
taneously attending to contradictory tensions parity fractures the literature and has implica-
without using the term paradox. Ambidexterity tions for strategies to manage paradox through
scholars, for instance, explore underlying ten- acceptance or resolution, another debate.
sions associated with innovation (Andriopoulos Advocated responses to paradox diverge be-
& Lewis, 2009) and call for firms and their lead- tween acceptance and resolution strategies.
ers to engage in exploration and exploitation Poole and Van de Ven (1989) identified four stra-
simultaneously (Tushman & OReilly, 1996). Or- tegic responses: (1) acceptance, keeping ten-
ganizational identity scholars propose that hy- sions separate and appreciating their differ-
brid identity organizations embed multiple, in- ences; (2) spatial separation, allocating
consistent identity types (Albert & Whetten, opposing forces across different organizational
1985), and they explore strategies for attending units; (3) temporal separation, choosing one pole
to competing identities simultaneously (Fiol, of a tension at one point in time and then switch-
Pratt, & OConnor, 2009; Pratt & Foreman, 2000). ing; and (4) synthesis, seeking a view that ac-
Institutional theorists recognize that organiza- commodates the opposing poles. In this fre-
tions embed multiple institutional logics, and quently used typology, the first strategy focuses
they explore responses to competing logics si- on acceptance, whereas the last three seek to
multaneously (Kraatz & Block, 2008). At a more resolve the underlying tensions.
micro level, work-family researchers explore the Acceptance encourages actors to embrace or
integration and interaction of competing de- live with paradox (Clegg, Cuhna, & Cuhna,
mands (Ilies, Wilson, & Wagner, 2009; Rothbard, 2002; Lewis, 2000). Living with paradox implies
2001). Greater conceptual clarity could enable that actors shift their expectations for rationality
more fruitful and provocative discussion across and linearity to accept paradoxes as persistent
paradox contexts. and unsolvable puzzles. Such strategies may be
A second challenge in the literature stems passive or proactive. Murnighan and Conlon
from an ontological debate that differentiates (1991), for instance, found that high-performing
paradoxical tensions either as an inherent fea- string quarters play through rather than con-
ture of a system or as social constructions that front tensions, thereby avoiding potentially di-
emerge from actors cognition and rhetoric. sastrous conflicts. Others, however, stress that
Clegg (2002) described the divergence between acceptance is a powerful, proactive strategy, re-
views of paradoxes as materialinherent in the ducing defensiveness to unleash enhanced per-
external world or representationssocial con- formance (Cameron, 1986). Emotions and cogni-
structions of our lived experiences (Ashcraft, tion play key roles in such strategies, which call
Kuhn, & Cooren, 2009). Material tensions are un- for actors to engage anxiety and thereby face
derstood to be embedded in complex human challenges surfaced by tensions (Luscher &
systems, such as firms and their varied sub- Lewis, 2008; Vince & Broussine, 1996). According
groups (Cameron & Quinn, 1988; Smith & Berg, to Beech, Burns, de Caestecker, MacIntosh, and
1987). These systems are inherently paradoxical MacLean (2004), acceptance entails opening ten-
386 Academy of Management Review April

sions to discussion to foster more creative con- Toyama, 2002; Teece & Pisano, 1994; Weick &
siderations. Quinn, 1999).
In contrast, other strategies seek resolution. In
this case resolution does not imply eliminating
Conceptual Clarity: Distinguishing Among
a tension but, rather, finding a means of meet-
Organizational Tensions
ing competing demands or considering diver-
gent ideas simultaneously. While Poole and Van Building the foundation of an integrative
de Ven (1989) suggest spatial separation, tempo- model requires conceptual clarity. To identify
ral separation, and synthesis, others explore key elements of paradox, we describe similari-
cognitive shifts that reframe the relationship be- ties and differences between paradoxical ten-
tween polarized elements (Bartunek, 1988), clar- sions and those labeled as dilemmas or dialec-
ifying mixed messages that invoke contradic- tics. Figure 2 illustrates these similarities and
tion (Argyris, 1988), or metacommunicating distinctions.
about tensions to identify both/and possibilities Leveraging existing literature, we define par-
(Seo, Putnam, & Bartunek, 2004). It is with these adox as contradictory yet interrelated elements
debates in mind that we propose an integrative that exist simultaneously and persist over time.
model. Such elements seem logical when considered in
isolation but irrational, inconsistent, and even
absurd when juxtaposed (see Lewis, 2000). The
distinguishing characteristics of paradox are il-
lustrated by the Taoist symbol of yin yang. First,
We respond to debates about the nature of paradox denotes elements, or dualities, that are
and managerial responses to paradoxical ten- oppositional to one another yet are also syner-
sions by building a model that (1) seeks concep- gistic and interrelated within a larger system
tual clarity, (2) describes both the inherent and (Cameron & Quinn, 1988; Voorhees, 1986). These
socially constructed features of organizational dualities are reflected as A and B in Figure 2.
tensions, and (3) integrates management strate- Boundaries separating these elements highlight
gies of acceptance and resolution. While exist- their distinctions, reinforced by formal logic that
ing studies address a specific paradox or iden- encourages either/or thinking and accentuates
tify particular elements of paradox, we integrate differences. The external boundary integrates
shared understandings into a more holistic the- the overall system and highlights synergies. Yet
oretical model. The metaphor of dynamic equi- this external boundary also binds and juxta-
librium highlights the models key featuresthe poses opposing elements and amplifies their
persistence of conflicting forces and purposeful, paradoxical nature, creating a dynamic rela-
cyclical responses over time that enable sus- tionship between dualities and ensuring their
tainability. Static equilibrium denotes a system persistence over time.
at steady state, when all components are at rest. Distinguishing paradoxes from similar orga-
When episodic action creates an imbalance, the nizational tensions, such as dilemmas and dia-
system responds to regain equilibrium. Dy- lectics, highlights the core characteristics of
namic equilibrium, in contrast, assumes con- paradox. A dilemma denotes a tension such that
stant motion across opposing forces. The system each competing alternative poses clear advan-
maintains equilibrium by adapting to a contin- tages and disadvantages (McGrath, 1982). Re-
uous pull in opposing directions. In biological solving the dilemma involves weighing pros
terms, cells achieve a dynamic equilibrium and cons. For example, a classic make versus
state of homeostasis when molecules flow in buy decision may pose a dilemma when both
and out of the cell at an equal rate. In thermo- options have upsides and downsides. In con-
dynamics a dynamic equilibrium involves si- trast, a dialectic denotes an ongoing process of
multaneous and vigorous forward and back- resolving tensions through integration. In this
ward reactions. In a dynamic organizational case A and B are contradictory (thesis and an-
system the role of leadership is to support op- tithesis) and resolvable through their merger
posing forces and harness the constant tension into a combined element (synthesis). Yet a new
between them, enabling the system to not only tension eventually surfaces as the resulting syn-
survive but continuously improve (Nonaka & thesis becomes a new thesis, C, and eventually
2011 Smith and Lewis 387

Distinguishing Among Organizational Tensions

Contradictory yet interrelated elements (dualities) that exist simultaneously and
persist over time; such elements seem logical when considered in isolation, but
A B irrational, inconsistent, and absurd when juxtaposed

Dualities (A and B) Opposites that exist within a unified whole

internal boundary creates distinction and highlights opposition
external boundary encourages synergies by constructing the unified whole

Competing choices, each with advantages and disadvantages
B Paradoxical when options are contradictory and interrelated such that
any choice between them is temporary and tension will resurface

Contradictory elements (thesis and antithesis) resolved through integration
C (synthesis), which, over time, will confront new opposition
Paradoxical when elements are both contradictory and interrelated.
Because synthesis stresses their similarities, neglecting valued differences,
integration is temporary. Need for disparate qualities persists such that
synthesis gradually favors one over the other (i.e., C and D retain core
B D characteristics of A and B, respectively)

spurs an antithesis, D (Bledow, Frese, Anderson, delegation to empower employees, the more this
Erez, & Farr, 2009; Nonaka & Toyama, 2002). highlighted the need for control to ensure effi-
Conceptual confusion, however, emerges as cient execution.
dilemmas, dialectics, and paradoxes overlap. A Similarly, dialectics prove paradoxical when
dilemma may prove paradoxical, for instance, the contradictory and interrelated relationship
when a longer time horizon shows how any between thesis and antithesis persists over
choice between A and B is temporary. Over time time. Synthesis stresses the similarities be-
the contradictions resurface, suggesting their tween elements. But by neglecting valued differ-
interrelatedness and persistence. As Cameron ences, this integration is short-lived. The need
and Quinn (1988) warned, too often actors im- for their disparate qualities remains such that
pose an either/or choice to treat tensions as di- any synthesis gradually favors one element
lemmas that could more fruitfully be ap- over the other (i.e., C and D retain core features
proached from a both/and perspective. In their of A and B, respectively). Clegg proposed that
action research Luscher and Lewis (2008) found paradoxes and dialectics become synonymous
that pushing managers to explore dilemmas of- when a thesis does not exist despite its anti-
ten surfaced their paradoxical nature. The more thesis, but because of it. Each pole of the dialec-
managers stressed the positive of one side, the tic needs the other to sustain its presence (2002:
more this accentuated the opposite. For exam- 29). In their action research Beech et al. (2004)
ple, in the tension between delegation and con- offered an example in the health care industry, a
trol, the more managers discussed the value of field pulled in opposing directions by demands
388 Academy of Management Review April

for medical and managerial skills. In their study (Andriopoulos & Lewis, 2009). Without explora-
a synthesis emerged through the educational tion, there is no organizational knowledge to
merger of medical and business degrees. Yet the exploit. Likewise, without exploitation, firms
fundamental duality persisted. Such hybrid pro- lack the foundational knowledge that enables
fessionals gradually became focused on their absorptive capacity and fuels experimentation.
medical peers and roles, eventually intensifying Ambidexterity creates demands for senior lead-
the need for greater business acumen. ership to support these contradictory strategies
The well-studied tension between exploration simultaneously (Smith & Tushman, 2005).
and exploitation illustrates the nature of para-
dox and its contrast with dilemmas and dialec-
Paradoxical Tensions: Latent and Salient
tics. As March (1991) first articulated, exploring
and exploiting pose conflicting strategies be- Building from this conceptual base, we de-
tween search and refinement, risk taking and velop a dynamic equilibrium model, shown in
efficiency, and variation and choice. These strat- Figure 3, that has three primary features: (1)
egies are associated with inconsistent manage- paradoxical tensions that are both latent and
rial cognitions (Gavetti & Levinthal, 2000; Gilbert, salient, (2) responses to tensions that entail iter-
2006), organizational contexts (Flynn & Chatman, ating among management strategies, and (3) the
2001; Ghoshal & Bartlett, 1994; Gibson & Birkin- outcome or impact of management strategies on
shaw, 2004), managerial skills (Virany & Tushman, sustainability.
1986), and rates of learning (Miller, Zhao, & Calan- Researchers have explored paradoxical ten-
tone, 2006; Taylor & Greve, 2006), and they compete sions as either inherent existing within the
for organizational resources (Gupta, Smith, & system or socially constructed created by ac-
Shalley, 2006). tors cognition or rhetoric. We propose that they
Initially, researchers and managers treated are both. That is, opposing yet interrelated du-
this challenge as a dilemma, seeking to identify alities are embedded in the process of organiz-
contingencies that separate exploration and ex- ing and are brought into juxtaposition via envi-
ploitation temporally or spatially. For example, ronmental conditions. In this way we focus on
in their punctuated equilibrium model Tushman forces that render latent tensions salient to or-
and Romanelli (1985) assume that stability and ganizational actors.
flexibility occur during different time periods Organizations emerge as leaders respond to
and that leadership should enable shifts over foundational questions, constructing boundar-
time. Alternative approaches suggest exploring ies that foster distinctions and dichotomies
and exploiting in different structures, where es- (Ford & Backoff, 1988). In creating organizations,
tablished firms continue to host exploitation ac- leaders must decide what they are going to do,
tivities and allocate exploration to internal cor- how they are going to do it, who is going to do it,
porate ventures (Burgelman, 2002) or spin-off and in what time horizon. By defining what they
entities (Rosenbloom & Christensen, 1994). Oth- are trying to do, the leaders define what they are
ers treat exploration and exploitation as a dia- not trying to do, highlighting goals and strate-
lectic, seeking to identify the synergies that gies and creating performing tensions, such as
emerge when new ideas, skills, and strategies global versus local and socially focused versus
are integrated along with the old (Bledow et al., financially focused. By defining how they are
2009; Farjoun, 2010). going to operate, they define how they are not
In contrast, recent ambidexterity research has going to operate. Doing so creates organizing
adopted a paradox lens, stressing that overall tensions, such as loosely coupled versus tightly
organizational success depends on exploring coupled, centralized versus decentralized, and
and exploiting simultaneously (Gibson & Birkin- flexible versus controlling. Responding to ques-
shaw, 2004; OReilly & Tushman, 2008; Raisch & tions about who is going to do what highlights
Birkinshaw, 2008). Even as these strategies com- conflicting identities, roles, and values, creating
pete for resources in the short term, they are belonging tensions. Finally, as leaders consider
mutually reinforcing to enable long-term suc- the time horizon for their actions, they face
cess (He & Wong, 2004). Exploration and exploi- learning tensions between today and tomorrow
tation reinforce one another through their inter- or between looking forward and looking back-
woven support of organizational learning ward. Tensions forged through the act of orga-
2011 Smith and Lewis 389

A Dynamic Equilibrium Model of Organizing
Paradoxical Management Outcomes
tensions strategies

Latent tensions Paradoxical resolution

Contradictory yet interrelated Confronting paradoxical tensions via
elements embedded in organizing iterating responses of splitting and
processes that persist because of integration
organizational complexity and
adaptation Choose A Accommodate A-B
Short-term peak
performance that fuels
Factors rendering tensions salient Choose B (P3)
long-term success
(P1a) Environmental factors
(P1b) Actors paradoxical
Salient tensions Acceptance
Contradictory yet interrelated Embracing paradoxical tensions via
elements experienced by strategy of working through
organizational actors

Factors spurring virtuous cycles

Factors spurring vicious cycles (P2a) Individual factors
Individual factors cognitive and behavioral complexity
cognitive and behavioral drive for emotional equanimity
consistency (P2b) Organizational dynamic capabilities
emotional anxiety and defensiveness
Organizational forces for inertia

nizing are not merely distinct from one another varied functional domains, each involving dis-
but are also oppositional and relational (Seo et tinct practices, cultures, identities, and demo-
al., 2004). By defining A we create a broad cate- graphics. R&D engineers might find themselves
gory of not A. The result is a system of interre- out of place if dressed in a suit and given sales
lated tensions. Clegg and colleagues explained targets, just as members of a sales force might
this emergence, noting that most management feel as though they have walked into a science
practices create their own nemesis (2002: 491). fiction movie if placed in a lab.
While actors construct organizations, doing so Finally, complex systems not only invoke var-
inherently surfaces material paradoxical ten- ied goals from internal stakeholders but also
sions. must address diverse demands posed by exter-
Tensions emanating through acts of organiz- nal stakeholders (Donaldson & Preston, 1995;
ing persist because of the complex and adaptive Freeman, 1984). Achieving success requires at-
nature of organizational systems. Systems are tention to the often conflicting needs of share-
complex in that they consist of discrete, hierar- holders, customers, employees, communities,
chically arranged subsystems, spurring spatial and suppliers. Moreover, the adaptive nature of
tensions between subsystems or between sub- systems spurs temporal tensions associated
systems and the overall system (Cyert & March, with paradoxes of learning and organizing as
1963). While each subsystem can operate inde- the demands of today differ from the needs for
pendently, success of the overall system de- tomorrow. In response to external and internal
pends on their interdependence (Katz & Kahn, stimuli, systems are constantly shifting, learn-
1966; Simon, 1962; Thompson, 1967). Organiza- ing, and changing (Teece, Pisano, & Shuen, 1997;
tional subsystems, for example, can encompass Tushman & Romanelli, 1985).
390 Academy of Management Review April

Even as tensions persist in organizational sys- natural environment (Hoffman & Woody, 2008).
tems, they may remain latent dormant, unper- Thus, leaders must consider demands of stake-
ceived, or ignored until environmental factors holders beyond their shareholders (Margolis &
or cognitive efforts accentuate the oppositional Walsh, 2003).
and relational nature of dualities. Latent ten- For example, Dutton and Dukerich (1991) de-
sions then become salientthe contradictory picted tensions between the Port Authoritys or-
and inconsistent nature of the tensions becomes ganizational identity as a professional organi-
experienced by organizational actors. We pro- zation with high-quality transportation service
pose that environmental factorsnamely, plu- and its identity as an altruistic organization
rality, change, and scarcityrender latent ten- with high commitment to the welfare of the re-
sions salient. gion. These tensions became salient when the
Plurality denotes a multiplicity of views in issue of homelessness created scarcity of re-
contexts of diffuse power (Denis, Langley, & sources, demanded attention to multiple stake-
Rouleau, 2007). Plurality expands uncertainty holders (customers, employees, community
and surfaces competing goals and inconsistent members, and the homeless), and involved or-
processes (Cohen & March, 1974). Likewise, ganizational change. Exploration-exploitation
change spurs new opportunities for sensemak- tensions offer another example. Increased com-
ing as actors grapple with conflicting short- and petitive pressures encourage firms to expand
long-term needs (Balogun & Johnson, 2004; Lu- both their exploitative and exploratory efforts
scher & Lewis, 2008) and with competing yet (Auh & Menguc, 2005). Change further accentu-
coexisting roles and emotions (Huy, 2002). Last, ates demands for the flexibility, experimenta-
scarcity involves resource limitations, whether tion, and risk enabled by exploration, even
temporal, financial, or human resources. As while continuing to exploit for enhanced effi-
leaders make choices about how to allocate re- ciency (Volberda & Lewin, 2003). These tensions
sources, this exacerbates tensions between op- are further pronounced in complex settings in
posing and interdependent alternatives (Smith which new technologies do not immediately dis-
& Tushman, 2005). Taken together, plurality, place existing ones (Gilbert, 2005). For instance,
change, and scarcity challenge our bounded ra- even as the personal computer eventually can-
tionality and stress systems. As a result, indi- nibalized the mainframe, mainframe revenue
viduals are more prone to break apart interwo- continued to grow for over twenty years. Such a
ven elements into either/or decisions, practices, setting demands exploiting existing technology,
and understanding, blurring their interrelated- even as firms race to explore new possibilities.
Proposition 1a: Latent paradoxical
Studies of paradox frequently note the in-
tensions become salient to organiza-
creasing intersection of these environmental
tional actors under environmental
forces. According to Clegg and colleagues
conditions of plurality, change, and
(2002), todays business climate is defined by
intricate dynamics that heighten awareness of
tensions. Plurality, change, and scarcity con- In addition to external environmental forces,
verge in settings of rising globalization (Bra- actors cognition and subsequent rhetoric can
dach, 1997), technological innovation (Iansiti, also highlight boundaries that draw attention to
1995), and hypercompetition (DAveni & Mac- underlying tensions (Ashcraft et al., 2009). Para-
Millan, 1990), demanding that leaders be more doxical cognitionframes and processes that
flexible (Teece et al., 1997) while also addressing recognize and juxtapose contradictory de-
an array of stakeholder pressures (Donaldson & mandsmake latent tensions more explicit
Preston, 1995). Awareness of divergent organiza- (Smith & Tushman, 2005). These cognitive
tional purposes is intensified when firms oper- frames may be spurred by cultural and contex-
ate across national borders, elevating the im- tual variables. Keller and Loewenstein (2010), for
portance of managing social as well as example, found that Chinese students are more
economic issues. Moreover, population explo- willing to simultaneously engage in both coop-
sion and urban expansion raise questions about erating and competing processes than are
the relationship between businesses and the American students.
2011 Smith and Lewis 391

Proposition 1b: Latent paradoxical sult in greater reliance on controls. While a sin-
tensions become salient as actors ap- gle-focused and well-aligned goal can drive
ply paradoxical cognition. short-term success, it can also have unintended
consequences, including missing alternative
perspectives (Barron & Harackiewicz, 1999) and
Managing Tensions: Enabling Vicious and
promoting unethical behaviors (Schweitzer,
Virtuous Cycles
Lisa, & Douma, 2004). Firms such as Polaroid and
Roots of vicious cycles. Once rendered salient, Firestone maintained commitments to their ex-
paradoxical tensions spur responses. According isting strategies, which detrimentally prevented
to paradox studies, responses fuel reinforcing them from engaging in future options (Sull, 1999;
cycles that can be negative or positive (Lewis, Tripsas & Gavetti, 2000). Likewise, the Enron,
2000). Negative, vicious cycles, depicted in Fig- WorldCom, and Tyco cases reflect a pathology
ure 3 with the dotted, downward arrow, stem of stressing profits without attending to process,
from such factors as cognitive and behavioral ends without considering means, and perfor-
forces for consistency, emotional anxiety and mance without embracing ethics (Trevino &
defensiveness, and organizational forces for in- Brown, 2004).
ertia. Individuals demonstrate a strong prefer- Enabling virtuous cycles through acceptance
ence for consistency in their attitudes and be- and resolution strategies. The dynamic equilib-
liefs (Cialdini, Trost, & Newsom, 1995; Heider, rium model explicates a more positive response
1958) and between their cognition and their ac- to paradoxical tensions. It depicts a virtuous
tions (Festinger, 1957), as well as an emotional cycle, with awareness of tensions triggering a
anxiety in the face of contradiction (Schneider, management strategy of acceptance rather than
1990). When facing contradiction, they often em- defensiveness. Acceptance entails viewing ten-
ploy defense mechanisms, such as denial, re- sions as an invitation for creativity and oppor-
pression (Vince & Broussine, 1996), and even hu- tunity (Beech et al., 2004). Smith and Berg note
mor (Hatch & Ehrlich, 1993), to avoid the that by immersing oneself in the opposing
inconsistencies. For example, actors may feel forces, it becomes possible to discover the link
paralysis as tensions spur confusion and rein- between them, the framework that gives mean-
force inaction (Smith & Berg, 1987). ing to the apparent contradictions in the expe-
Individuals may also react by choosing one rience (1987: 215) In their action research Lu-
agenda, altering their beliefs or actions to en- scher and Lewis (2008) show that helping
able a consistent response (Cialdini et al., 1995) managers accept tensions as paradoxical en-
or maintaining an often mindless commitment abled their sensemaking. Initially managers ex-
to previous behaviors in order to enable consis- perienced tensions as a dilemma. However, by
tency between the past and the future (Weick, recognizing that they could never choose be-
1993). Such commitments become reinforced by tween competing tensions, because either op-
organizational dynamics that embed inertia in tion intensified needs for its opposite, they be-
structures (Henderson & Clark, 1990), routines gan to adopt paradoxical thinking and opened
(Eisenhardt & Martin, 2000), processes (Gilbert, discussions to consider both/and possibilities.
2005), and capabilities (Leonard-Barton, 1992), In contrast to factors that lead to defensive-
where the future becomes beholden to the past. ness, we propose that attending to competing
Together, these individual and organizational demands simultaneously requires cognitive and
forces for consistency fuel a reinforcing cycle by behavioral complexity, emotional equanimity,
becoming increasingly focused on a single and dynamic organizational capabilities. At the
choice. individual level, cognitive complexity reflects
Sundaramurthy and Lewis (2003) reviewed an ability to recognize and accept the interre-
such dynamics, using collaboration-control ten- lated relationship of underlying tensions. It en-
sions in governance for illustration. Boards that ables actors to host paradoxical cognitionsthe
overemphasize collaboration fuel groupthink, as cognitive frames that accept contradictions
threat rigidity and escalating commitment fos- (Smith & Tushman, 2005). By seeking valued dif-
ter even greater collaboration in a vicious spi- ferences between competing forces (Langer,
ral. Overemphasizing control signals distrust 1989), while also identifying potential synergies
and drives defensiveness and turf wars that re- (Suedfeld, Tetlock, & Streufert, 1992), actors are
392 Academy of Management Review April

more likely to accept paradox. Similarly, Deni- so, enable members to be more open and accept-
son and colleagues (1995) proposed that behav- ing of the dynamic environment of paradoxical
ioral complexity, a facility to adopt competing tensions.
behaviors, enables acceptance of paradoxical
Proposition 2b: Organizations with dy-
Emotional equanimity, an emotional calm and namic capabilities will foster greater
evenness, further fosters paradoxical responses acceptance of paradoxical tensions
by reducing anxiety and fear spurred by incon- rather than encourage defensiveness.
sistencies (Huy, 1999). Social psychologists have The dynamic equilibrium model proposes a
long investigated how emotions influence be- managerial approach to paradox involving com-
havior, either by providing cognitive informa- plementary and interwoven strategies of accep-
tion to impact decision making (Forgas & tance and resolution. Acceptance lays the vital
George, 2001; Maitlis & Ozcelik, 2004) or by di- groundwork for virtuous cycles. When actors as-
rectly spurring behavior (Fredrickson, 2001). sume that tensions can and should coexist (Peng
Tensions can elicit strong emotions. Competing & Nisbett, 1999; Rothenberg, 1979), they can
demands highlight ambiguity, uncertainty, and mindfully explore the dynamic relationship be-
equivocality that provoke anxiety (Lewis, 2000; tween tensions (Langer, 1989). Specifically,
Vince & Broussine, 1996). Freudian psychology viewing decisions as situated in the long term
suggests that contradictory and ambiguous in- may reduce conflict over scarce resources be-
formation is ego threatening, provoking defen- cause managers recognize that any choice is
siveness (Schneider, 1990). Vince and Broussine temporary, likely to change in the future be-
(1996) and Smith and Berg (1987) cataloged de- cause both dualities are vital to propagate long-
fensive responses, including repression, denial,
run success. Acceptance can further involve
and splitting, often used to avoid an underlying
viewing resources as abundant rather than
tension. Emotional equanimity minimizes the in-
scarce. Those with an abundance orientation
tense emotional defensiveness and fear and, in
assume that resources are adequate (Peach &
doing so, fosters comfort and openness to con-
Dugger, 2006) and that people attend to re-
tradictions that can minimize counterproductive
sources by seeking affirmative possibilities and
defensiveness and vicious cycles (Sundaramur-
endless potential (Cameron & Lavine, 2006).
thy & Lewis, 2003).
Acceptance provides a comfort with tensions
Proposition 2a: Actors with cognitive that enables more complex and challenging res-
and behavioral complexity and emo- olution strategies. Resolution involves seeking
tional equanimity are more likely to responses to paradoxical tensions, either
accept paradoxical tensions rather through splitting and choosing between ten-
than respond defensively. sions or by finding synergies that accommodate
While cognitive and behavioral complexity opposing poles. Studies of tensions predomi-
and emotional equanimity foster more openness nantly highlight one of these options, identify-
to paradox at the individual level, dynamic ca- ing cases of splitting (Tushman & Romanelli,
pabilities can do so at the organizational level. 1985) or synergistic integration (i.e., Bledow et
Dynamic capabilities refer to the processes, rou- al., 2009; Jarzabkowski & Sillince, 2007). Yet
tines, and skills that enable firm leaders to re- Poole and Van de Ven (1989) presented these
spond effectively to constantly shifting environ- strategies as ideal types, which can be used
ments (Teece et al., 1997). As such, dynamic together. A dynamic equilibrium model pro-
capabilities allow leaders to seek and integrate poses such a combination; paradoxical resolu-
new information through distinct structures tion denotes purposeful iterations between al-
(Tushman & OReilly, 1996), cultures (Gibson & ternatives in order to ensure simultaneous
Birkinshaw, 2004), learning processes (Cohen & attention to them over time. Doing so involves
Levinthal, 1990; Zollo & Winter, 2002), and man- consistent inconsistency as managers fre-
agerial capabilities (Adner & Helfat, 2002; Smith quently and dynamically shift decisions. Actors
& Tushman, 2005). Dynamic capabilities provide therefore make choices in the short term while
collective tools to enable organizational leaders remaining acutely aware of accepting contra-
to respond to environmental shifts and, in doing diction in the long term.
2011 Smith and Lewis 393

For example, as individuals consider allocat- vicious cycles persists, requiring managers to
ing time between work and family, their choice remain vigilant as they iterate between accep-
may shift from attending to intense work com- tance and paradoxical resolution strategies.
mitments at one point to focusing on family de- Paradox studies have stressed these dynam-
mands to identifying means of linking work and ics. Luscher and Lewis (2008) proposed that dif-
family. These short-term allocations of time al- ferent types of paradoxical tensions are interwo-
low for long-term engagement with both oppos- ven and reinforcing, just as strategies for their
ing forces. Similarly, firms with strategic com- management interact in an ongoing cycle. Con-
mitments to the financial bottom line and to a cluding their action research, they stressed that
broader social mission may alternate between managing paradox is precarious since actors
focusing subunits on different purposes and are likely to return to past practices. Dualities
seeking synergistic opportunities that further become taken-for-granted elements of organiza-
both purposes. tional life, tempting actors to apply dichotomous
A dynamic strategy may not only reflect in- either/or frames. Similarly, Clegg and col-
consistent choices over time but inconsistencies leagues (2002) described organizations in a state
within the same time period. For example, of permanent dialectics fueled by the interplay
Smith, Binns, and Tushman (2010) found that between paradoxical tensions and their man-
more effectively attending to both exploration agement. The authors did not bemoan this state
and exploitation simultaneously involved dy- but, rather, depicted ongoing tensions as natu-
namic decision making in which senior leaders ral, encouraging managers to remain reflective
allocated additional resources to both the exist- and thereby manage paradoxes in ways that tap
ing product and the innovation at the same time. their positive potential.
Some paradox studies depict such purposeful
iterations. Denis, Lamothe, and Langley (2001)
The Outcome: Sustainability
noted that managing change surfaces leader-
ship tensions between forceful action and ap- What is the outcome of a virtuous cycle of
proval seeking. They proposed that leaders managing tensions? Paradox research points to
more effectively manage change when they possibilities. Effectively attending to contradic-
shift between these different poles and periodi- tory demands simultaneously has been associ-
cally seek an integrative means of restructuring ated with career success (OMahony & Bechky,
the relationship among a group of leaders. Like- 2006), exceptional leadership capabilities (Deni-
wise, Fiol and colleagues (2009) described a son et al., 1995), high-performing groups (Mur-
model of responding to conflicting identities as nighan & Conlon, 1991), and organizational per-
an iterative dance among subgroup, individual, formance (Cameron & Lavine, 2006; Tushman,
and blended identities, and Klein, Ziegert, Smith, Wood, Westerman, & OReilly, 2010). We
Knight, and Xiao (2006) found that emergency expand on such studies, proposing that a dy-
room trauma teams dynamically shift leader- namic equilibrium unleashes the power of par-
ship between the formal leader and informal adox to foster sustainability. Individuals,
leaders, thereby enabling both structure and groups, and firms achieve short-term excellence
flexibility. while ensuring that such performance fuels
A dynamic equilibrium creates a virtuous cy- adaptation and growth enabling long-term suc-
cle. Following structuration theory, organization- cess (Cameron & Lavine, 2006). More specifi-
al systems are created and reproduced through cally, a dynamic equilibrium enables sustain-
both structure and agency (Giddens, 1984). Ap- ability through three mechanisms: (1) enabling
plying consistently inconsistent management learning and creativity, (2) fostering flexibility
strategies further embeds tensions within the and resilience, and (3) unleashing human poten-
systems strategies, structures, rules, processes, tial.
and identities. As such, paradoxes reflect both By managing organizational paradox, a dy-
inherent features of organizations and the namic equilibrium fosters learning and creativ-
agency that created and continues to reproduce ity. In a study of fifty-four highly creative indi-
those systems. Yet even as virtuous cycles can viduals, Rothenberg (1979) found that their
reinforce underlying tensions, achieving bene- genius stemmed from the capacity to juxtapose
fits from those tensions is not easy. The threat of opposing ideas. Einsteins theory of relativity
394 Academy of Management Review April

emerged from thinking about the same object nizing to become a fluid, reflective, and sustain-
simultaneously in motion and at rest. Mozarts able process.
music is a function of engaging concordance
Proposition 3: Managing paradoxical
with discordance, and Picassos paintings re-
tension via dynamic, purposeful, and
flect both calm and chaos. Similarly, Suedfeld et
ongoing strategies of acceptance and
al. (1992) noted that world leaders attending to
resolution (iterating between splitting
some of the most complex problems juxtapose
and integration) fosters sustainability.
contradictory elements to understand their dif-
ferences and to explore points of intersection. At
an organizational level, Eisenhardt and West- DISCUSSION
cott (1988) found that linking conflicting strate-
gies can spur organizational learning. Juxtapos- Over the past twenty years, researchers have
ing opposing forces may create the context for advocated paradox as a provocative and pow-
leaders to engage in creative problem solving, erful lens for comprehending and managing or-
allowing their organizations to continuously im- ganizational tensions (e.g., Cameron & Quinn,
prove. 1988; Lewis, 2000; Poole & Van de Ven, 1989). Yet
Managing paradoxical tensions also helps in- as paradox has become more pervasive in our
dividuals, groups, and firms to be flexible and literature, its definitions, focus, and uses appear
resilient, fostering more dynamic decision mak- increasingly eclectic. Seeking to further unleash
ing. A well-aligned system that chooses be- the power of a paradox perspective for theory
tween opposing elements may attain short-term and practice, we reviewed existing studies of
success but can become static and inert (Tush- paradox and integrated their insights within a
man & OReilly, 1996). Complex interdependen- dynamic equilibrium model of organizing. The
cies can trap resources (Miller, 1993), since core review highlights varied empirical and theoret-
capabilities can become core rigidities (Leon- ical exemplars that may guide future research
ard-Barton, 1992; Tripsas, 1997). Likewise, lead- while surfacing key debates.
ers can become cognitively committed to a sin- The dynamic equilibrium model advances our
gular focus (Tripsas & Gavetti, 2000). In contrast, understanding of paradox is several ways. First,
attending to competing demands simultane- this model responds to key debates about the
ously involves a consistent and mindful shifting nature and management of paradox. Second,
of cognition, restructuring of resources, altering the model attends to the dynamic and persistent
of structures, and rethinking of goals (Weick, nature of organizational paradoxes, depicting
Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 1999). Such constant move- how paradoxical tensions and their manage-
ment fosters adaptability (Farjoun, 2002; Weick ment might interact in an ongoing, cyclical pro-
& Quinn, 1999). cess. Finally, the dynamic equilibrium model
Finally, adopting a dynamic equilibrium ap- proposes that this virtuous cycle enables sus-
proach to organizing can unleash human poten- tainability by fostering creativity and learning,
tial. Individuals can experience positive energy enabling flexibility and resilience, and unleash-
and success in response to the creativity and ing human potential.
learning fueled from the juxtaposition of contra-
dictory tensions. Positive energy creates the
Alternative Perspectives on Organizational
conditions for individuals to be more engaged in
Tensions: Beyond Contingency Theory
high-quality connections (Dutton & Heaphy,
2003), more persistent in the face of challenges We began this article by comparing a paradox
(Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), and more perspective with contingency theory, suggesting
dedicated to reaching their goals (Kirschen- that they both attend to underlying organization-
baum, 1984). In turn, this energy helps raise al tensions but with divergent assumptions and
team effectiveness (Losada & Heaphy, 2004), as responses. We now return to this discussion,
well as organizational performance (Cameron & using this comparison to further highlight the
Lavine, 2006). In sum, a dynamic equilibrium benefit and boundary conditions of a paradox
fosters and reinforces commitment to multiple, perspective.
competing agendas. Attending to paradox and Tensions are at the core of organizational re-
building supportive capabilities enable orga- search. Even before contingency theory, early
2011 Smith and Lewis 395

researchers responded to tensions by seeking Contrasting a paradox perspective with con-

the one best way to organize. Scholars sought tingency theory and early organizational theo-
to articulate generalizable principles about why ries accentuates distinctions between their as-
firms benefit from a more hierarchical versus sociated research questions, methodological
flat structure (Fayol, 1990) or from more coercive designs, and practical implications (see Table
versus self-directed HR practices (McGregor, 1). Early organizational theories asked, Is A or B
1960; Taylor, 1911). In reaction to this perspec- more effective? Contingency theory asks, Un-
tive, contingency theory emerged in the 1960s, der what conditions is A or B more effective? A
calling for researchers to consider the condi- paradox perspective, in contrast, asks, How can
tions under which alternative elements of ten- organizations and their managers effectively
sions were most effective (i.e., Galbraith, 1973; engage A and B simultaneously? Such differ-
Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967; Woodward, 1965). Ac- ences further influence methodological choices.
cording to this lens, success depends on align- Early theories compared alternatives, whereas
ment within the internal system and with the contingency theory suggests explanatory meth-
external environment. The role of management ods that address specific variables, seek mean
is to recognize and then resolve tensions. Con- tendencies, and emphasize cause and effect.
tingency theory has been used to study organi- This orientation contrasts with the contextual-
zational tensions across phenomena and levels ized and process-oriented methodologies often
of analysis (Luthans & Stewart, 1977; Tosi & Slo- adopted to identify paradoxical tensions and
cum, 1984). their management. These include more discur-
A paradox perspective offers an alternative. sive and systemic methods that stress context
As with contingency theory, a paradox perspec- and process, ranging from Luscher and Lewiss
tive explores tensions across phenomena and (2008) action research to Huys (2002) multiyear
levels. But in contrast to contingency theory, a inductive field study.
paradox perspective assumes that tensions per- Finally, the epistemological assumptions of
sist within complex and dynamic systems. these theories drive different practical implica-
These underlying tensions are not only normal tions. Early theories were based on the notion
but, if harnessed, can be beneficial and power- that there is one best way. Contingency theory
ful. The juxtaposition of coexisting opposites in- assumes that alternative approaches depend on
tensifies experiences of tension, challenging ac- the situation and effective managers split ten-
tors cognitive limits, demanding creative sions and choose the pole that best aligns strat-
sensemaking, and seeking more fluid, reflexive, egy with structure (Chandler, 1962), internal or-
and sustainable management strategies. ganizational factors (Beer, 1980; Nadler &

Alternative Approaches to Managing Organizational Tensions

Key Theory/ Organizational
Perspective Theories Contingency Paradox

Foundational research Fayol (1911), Taylor Woodward (1965), Smith & Berg (1987),
(1911) Lawrence & Lorsch Cameron & Quinn
(1967), Galbraith (1973) (1988), Poole & Van
de Ven (1989)
Approach to organiza- A or B? Under what conditions A How to engage A and B
tional tension or B? simultaneously?
Research methods Comparison of Mean tendencies, limited Systemic, discursive,
alternatives variables contextual methods
Epistemological One best way to be Alignment and consistency Contradiction is
assumptions successful with internal and inherent and can be
external environment powerful to enable
enable success peak performance if
396 Academy of Management Review April

Tushman, 1992), and external environment (Law- Rao, 1997; Jarzabkowski & Sillince, 2007). In ad-
rence & Lorsch, 1967). These theories further dition, rising numbers of hybrid organizations
view time as linear and quantitative and are emerging that explicitly seek to achieve
change as a predominantly episodic experience. both profit and social goals (Battilana & Dorado,
Such efforts require an orientation characterized 2010; Pache & Santos, 2010). These multiple bot-
by risk management and rational decision mak- tom lines create paradoxical demands on orga-
ing. In contrast, a paradox perspective seeks nizations strategy (Smith & Tushman, 2005).
managerial strategies that support contrasting Likewise, at the individual level, gender roles
elements simultaneously. Even as managerial are no longer clearly divided. The family struc-
responses might involve splitting in the short ture dominant in the early twentieth century
termleveraging insights from contingency split responsibilities for work and family
theory to guide choices that align the firm with along gender lines. Yet a changing family
its current contextthey also move beyond to structure, the economy, and the feminist move-
seek integration and iterative decision making ment challenge such stark divisions. As new
and attend to temporality that is both episodic options surface, the tensions between work
and quantitative, as well as continuous and and family become more salient (i.e., Roth-
qualitative (Huy, 2001; Weick & Quinn, 1999). Do- bard, 2001).
ing so requires management that can attend to We do not propose that a paradox perspective
complexity, engage ambiguity, and enable un- should replace contingency theory but, rather,
certainty. that it provides a complementary alternative. In
While contingency theory remains a dominant seeking to identify the conditions under which
model for organizational theorizing, a paradox varied approaches are most appropriate, contin-
perspective offers a timely alternative. Organi- gency research is restricted to a limited number
zations increasingly face conditions of plurality, of variables and holds constant broad contexts
change, and scarcity. These factors not only in- and long time horizons (Tosi & Slocum, 1984).
crease the salience of persistent tensions but Therefore, contingency theory is most valuable
also limit the effectiveness of singular strate- when solving problems with a narrower context
gies. For example, firms once may have been in a shorter time horizon. Yet a contingency ap-
able to shift between periods of exploitative in- proach threatens to oversimplify contexts that
novation punctuated by more radical explora- are more complex and dynamic. As Weick notes:
tion (i.e., Tushman & Romanelli, 1985). Yet the If a simple process is applied to complicated
pace of technological change today demands data, then only a small portion of that data will
that firms simultaneously excel at both explora- be registered, attended to, and made unequivo-
tion and exploitation (Smith & Tushman, 2005), cal. Most of the input will remain untouched and
enabling stability and flexibility (Feldman & will remain a puzzle to people concerning what is
up and why they are unable to manage it (1979:
Pentland, 2003; Rindova & Kotha, 2001) and 189).
building contexts for learning and performance
(Ghoshal & Bartlett, 1994). The dynamic equilibrium model reconceptual-
Similarly, organizational boundaries appear izes organizing, challenging management the-
increasingly blurred. Organizations could once ory and organizational change practices to at-
justify bifurcating social and financial goals to tend to this complexity. Rather than choose
either for-profit and not-for-profit entities (i.e., between dualities, paradox theory addresses
Friedman, 1970; Levitt, 1958). Yet as globaliza- tensions that are synergistic and persistent. As
tion, technology, and expansion increase social such, strategies of acceptance and resolution
ills, human rights violations, pollution, climate seek to engage tensions and thereby enable
change, and so forth, for-profit organizations are sustainability.
increasingly attending to social as well as fi-
nancial outcomes (Margolis & Walsh, 2003). At
Toward a Theory of Paradox
the same time, population growth mixed with
financial crises forces not-for-profits, including Comparing paradox with contingency theory
hospitals, universities, social service institu- highlights the potential for creating a theory of
tions, and so on, to make difficult decisions paradox. Until now, we have referred to a para-
based on their bottom line (Golden-Biddle & dox perspective, yet, like contingency theory,
2011 Smith and Lewis 397

this lens offers an approach to tensions that As with contingency theory, a theory of para-
spans organizational phenomena, levels of dox provides a metatheoretical perspective that
analysis, and theoretical perspectives. More- can provide guidance on how other theories ask
over, we presented the dynamic equilibrium questions and explore insights. For example,
model by integrating existing studies and pro- organizational identity theorists can adopt a
posing testable propositions. The model thus of- paradoxical perspective to understand the in-
fers the basis for a theory of paradox, providing herent tensions in hybrid identity organizations
common definitions, assumptions, mechanisms, and identify strategies for the simultaneous
and outcomes for further study. At its core a management of these tensions (Albert &
paradox theory presumes that tensions are inte- Whetten, 1985). Paradox theory offers a frame to
gral to complex systems and that sustainability help neoinstitutional theorists explore the ten-
depends on attending to contradictory yet inter- sions of multiple logics (Kraatz & Block, 2008).
woven demands simultaneously. Similarly, paradox theory shifts the questions
Why is a theory of paradox needed? First, asked by motivational theorists from what the
such a theory can unify the extensive yet varied conditions are under which individuals are
research in this area. The diverse literature of more driven by intrinsic or extrinsic motivators
paradox has come to resemble Wenger and Sny- (Ryan & Deci, 2000) or self-interest or social in-
ders (2000) paradox of communities of practice. terests (Crocker, 2008) to how individuals en-
Such communities evolve through shared inter- gage in these competing drives simultaneously.
ests. Devoid of controls, their efforts flourish in To further the development and application of
novel directions. Yet these novel directions cre- paradox theory, we encourage methodological
strategies that can investigate tensions, enable
ate broad assumptions and prevent a growing
contextual richness, and consider more cyclical
community from effective interaction.
dynamics. Paradox studies demonstrate the
Minus an integrating theory, studies attend-
value of alternative tools, such as case studies
ing to simultaneous opposites coexist across
(Andriopoulos & Lewis, 2009), action research
theoretical and phenomenological domains
(Beech et al., 2004), systems approaches (Ster-
without interacting with one another. Research
man, 2000), and agent-based models (Axelrod,
on hybrid identities, multiple logics, ambidex-
1997), for enabling more nuanced insights. If we
terity, and work/family integration all draw from
are to take paradoxes seriously, we need to de-
a similar assumption about the simultaneous
velop these and other methods to explore para-
coexistence of competing alternatives and yet doxical tensions, their management, and their
could more effectively inform one another impact.
about the management of tensions. Fully le- Paradox theory also can challenge us to re-
veraging their potential, however, requires ef- think our messages to practitioners. What would
forts to identify commonalities and create in- it mean to teach managers about paradoxes?
tegration through which paradox proponents Doing so could entail developing pedagogical
may connect, interact, and build from each material that includes conceptual and theoreti-
others understandings. cal understandings of paradox. Further, it
Providing a unifying platform can spur contin- means helping students experience and learn to
ued theoretical debate and guide future empir- accept tensions and apply paradoxical strate-
ical research. Such a theory not only offers a gies through varied structures, processes, and
response to organizational tensions but encour- leadership approaches.
ages active searching for and surfacing of those Finally, a paradox theory offers opportunities
tensions to enhance creativity and performance. for enriching organizational theorizing. In 1989
Researchers can ask several primary questions Poole and Van de Ven responded to AMRs spe-
in approaching organizational phenomena: (1) cial issue on new theory by suggesting that jux-
What tensions are embedded within organiza- taposing opposing theories can inspire novel
tions, and how and why are these tensions (not) insights. While our paper has focused on tools
experienced by organizational members? (2) for exploring paradox in organizational phe-
How are these paradoxical tensions managed? nomena, we reassert and strengthen their claim
(3) What are the implications of their (in)effec- for using paradox as a tool for theorizing. How
tive management? would our research and theorizing across the
398 Academy of Management Review April

Academy differ if we assumed that for every 1987; Symonds & Pudsey, 2008). Indeed, Mary
thesis there is an antithesis?4 Such an assump- Parker Follet proposed ideas of circularity, dy-
tion introduces the possibility of seeking oppos- namism, and simultaneity of opposing forces in
ing views of even our most well-established or- her 1920s management writings (Graham, 1996).
ganizational theories. What is the opposing Today, as globalization, innovation, hyper-
theory to emotional contagion? Threat rigidity? competition, and social demands create more
Upper echelon theory? What would theories look dynamic and intricate environments, paradox
like that embed contradictory phenomena? Par- becomes a critical theoretical lens to under-
adox theory not only proposes that contradictory stand and to lead contemporary organizations.
theories exist but offers a process for academics Our goal in this paper therefore was not to re-
to start enriching and renewing our stock of or- define paradox, but to renew the conceptto
ganizational theories. propose and integrate research that draws from
existing literature and thereby encourage aca-
demics and practitioners to apply a paradox
Next Steps
theory. We hope that our work suggests ways to
The future of paradox theory is bright. The understand and manage through this more com-
integrative model suggests several next steps, plex reality.
while the reviewed exemplars offer guides for
such work. First, work could test our proposi-
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Wendy K. Smith (smithw@udel.edu) is associate professor of management in the

Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware. She received
her Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Harvard University and the Harvard Busi-
ness School. Her research focuses on managing strategic paradoxes, particularly
exploring how top management teams and their organizations respond to tensions
between exploring and exploiting or between social missions and financial goals.

Marianne W. Lewis (marianne.lewis@uc.edu) is professor and associate dean at the

University of Cincinnati. She received her Ph.D. in management from the University of
Kentucky. Her research explores paradoxes that impede and enable innovation.
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