While it sounds a little silly, Einstein used to sit around and think about how an object could be at rest and yet also moving -- at the same time. Deciding that the apparent contradiction was possible depending on the position of the person observing the object helped lead Einstein to his theory of relativity.
Einstein was hardly alone in that approach; a 1996 study showed that a number of Nobel Prize winners and groundbreaking scientists all put chunks of time into "actively conceiving multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously."
Proving that, oddly enough, while we all crave certainty, embracing contradictions can be a better way forward.
Take constraints. Setting out to achieve a huge goal with insufficient resources sounds like a recipe for stress. Anxiety. Conflict.
And eventual failure.
Unless you embrace what social psychologists call the "paradox mindset."
In a 2017 study published in Academy of Management Journal, researchers asked employees to rate their willingness to embrace contradictions using statements like:
- "When I consider conflicting perspectives, I gain a better understanding of an issue."
- "I am comfortable working on tasks that contradict each other."
- "I feel uplifted when I realize two opposites can be true."
The researchers then asked each employee to rate how often they experienced resource constraints at work: Limited time, limited funds, limited resources, limited supplies, etc.
In the meantime, their bosses rated each person in terms of overall performance, creativity, and innovation.
You've already guessed the result. Employees who ranked on the low end of the paradox mindset scale struggled with constraints. When they felt resources were insufficient, their performance sagged.
The employees who embraced a paradox mindset, who thought it was not just challenging but even a little fun to overcome constraints, were the better performers -- especially where creativity and problem-solving was concerned.
Better yet, constraints often caused their performance to improve.
And here's the best part. A study published last year in Journal of Applied Behavioral Science found that "leaders' paradox mindset strengthens the relationship between employees' paradox mindset and thriving at work ... and is positively associated with employees' innovative work behavior."
Or in non-researcher-speak, the more you embrace a paradox mindset, the more likely your employees will too.
The Paradox Mindset in Action
Sounds great in theory, right?
But also in practice. I know plenty of successful startup founders who early on had huge ambitions and no money; today they're glad they didn't have the money to throw at problems or challenges.
Even after they could have. Like MailChimp, a company that began as a side hustle on the way to earning over $500 million in revenue and becoming Inc.'s 2017 Company of the Year -- without taking a dime of outside investor funds.
Or take companies that relentlessly pursue continuous improvement. While they embrace rigorous processes and best practices -- why seek to improve if you don't plan to codify those improvements -- they also constantly change those same processes and practices.
Walk through a Toyota automobile plant and it's instantly obvious you can say, "This is the best way to do it" while still seeking an even better "best."
Or take Apple, a company long praised for innovation, but also praised for "intense operational efficiency."
Yep: For people with a paradox mindset, contradictory terms like "extremely efficient" and "highly innovative" not only make sense--the combination is motivating and even a little exciting.
One more example: Kind Snacks. Making chewy and crunchy granola bars seemed like a contradictory goal, one the company solved by using better (and more expensive) packaging to seal in the desired texture. As founder Daniel Lubetzky likes to say, why settle for "or"? Instead of compromising, challenge yourself -- and your team -- to find a way to come up "and" solutions.
Luxurious and affordable. Rigorous and flexible. Business objectives and social objectives.
Embrace a paradox mindset -- embrace opposing demands, opposing perspectives, and seeming contradictions -- could result in looking at old problems in entirely new ways.
And finding solutions you never would have considered.