Do Contradictions Fail to Make a Lasting Impression?

Posted by martin.parnell |

The other day, I was going through our bookshelves, looking for something to read. My wife, suggested a title by an author she’d recently discovered and thought I’d enjoy. I looked at it and wasn’t impressed by the cover, but decided to give it a go. It has turned out to be a really good read. It reminded me of that old saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” 

Last week, my publisher sent me 5 prospective covers for my next book, asking for my opinion. I really took my time, trying to decide which one I thought would most appeal to a prospective reader. After all, don’t “First Impressions Count”? Old sayings can prove to be very contradictory. Just consider these further examples: 

  • Great minds think alike.       Fools seldom differ.
  • Money is the root of all evil.      Money makes the world go around.
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth.     Many hands make light work.
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder.     Out of sight, out of mind. 

It’s easy to find one of these little nuggets of wisdom to support our ideas. Sometimes, looking at things in different / opposite ways can help us learn and evaluate.  However, offering contradictory advice can be confusing and non-productive. Consider the effect if you are giving out contradictory messages to your colleagues or employees. 

In an excellent article for the Globe and Mail, published 13th. January 2018, Harvey Schachter wrote: 

“Don’t ignore work contradictions – leverage them. Life is full of paradoxes, contradictions and apparent oxymorons. Success is often determined through the tension between two contrary desired ends. But it is also in our human nature to avoid bringing those contradictions to the surface, particularly in our organizations. So we let them fester, blocking us from moving ahead as far as we might, and sometimes creating opposing camps fighting guerrilla warfare by memo and artifice.

Let's take one of the most common contradictions. Most organizations are dedicated to producing quality products and services. And most organizations are also committed to efficiency. But at times, quality and efficiency can be contradictory goals. It might be difficult to achieve both at the same time. Similarly, it's often difficult to achieve quality and cost reduction at the same time, as the "more for less" gang claim.

The prevailing management position is to ignore the contradiction. Managers will choose whichever of the two goals seems most pressing at the time, and let it triumph. That might means efficiency rules for a six-month period, until anecdotal evidence surfaces that customers are concerned with deteriorating quality, in which case the tilt shifts in the opposite direction for a while. The other common technique is to simply go with instinct or the best case put forward at the particular time a decision is being considered. So in the morning, a decision favours quality at the expense of efficiency and in the afternoon the reverse occurs.

Meanwhile, employees' heads spin. They can't figure out what really counts in the organization. And many of them will take advantage of any inconsistency to criticize management, dampening morale. "They tell us quality is important, but look at how they are wrecking quality by that crazy decision to speed up the process," cynics will tell anyone willing to listen. Or they will feast on the contrary decisions in a short time span: "Yesterday morning, they decided to accept some inefficiency in the name of quality and then did you see what they did in the afternoon? Exactly the reverse! What a bunch of morons."

Meanwhile, you keep talking about clarity and alignment, just like the management experts urge, aloof from the reality of the workplace.

Running an organization is not simple. That's the challenge and fascination of management. You will always face contradictions and paradoxes. The trick is to identify them and grapple with them openly, so they aren't hidden. What makes managers look foolish is in not acknowledging the grey areas while talking in black and white terms. The result is confusion and cynicism, not clarity and connection.

Meetings, by the way, are loaded with contradictions. They are meant to build a team feeling but are best when people challenge one another, which can lead to conflict. The urge in a meeting is to plunge straight ahead to conclude an item but inevitably the best parts of meetings are when you get sidetracked, wallowing in some unexplored issue.”

Schachter offers some solutions:

“Start by identifying the various contradictions that bedevil your organization. There are probably a dozen or so, with three to five quite prominent. Everybody knows about them – people might even have divided into camps over them – but they have probably never been openly discussed in a general way, like quality and efficiency, or superb customer service and the need to keep staffing low. Less fundamental, but also important, might be the fact you say you want to hire the best people but you are always in a rush to fill a spot. Or perhaps you say you want to give developmental opportunities to your people but you tend to always hire from outside. Centralization vs. local autonomy, of course, is an eternal favourite.

Once you have identified these contradictions, talk openly about them. It can help to identify the positive elements in each element of a contradiction you have raised, to understand that both are still laudable intents and neither side is wholly wrong. How can you gain the positives each offers, a win-win in Western terms and a yin-yang in Eastern terms? Then try to figure out whether you can approach these dilemmas with more consistency and logic, developing some overall policy that keeps you – and staff – more balanced and consistent.”

 This may be a lot to take in and if you think your company is ticking along quite nicely as it is and your attitude to it all is “You can't teach an old dog new tricks.” However, I’d like to be a little contradictory and propose that “You're never too old to learn.”

About the Author

Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential”. Martin has written for, or been covered by CNNBBCCBCThe Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.

In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. Find out more about Martin at  and see what he can do for you in the long run.

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