Organizational paradox offers a theory of the nature and management of competing demands. Historically, the dominant paradigm in organizational theory depicted competing demands as trade-offs or dilemmas that could be resolved by choosing one option. In the late 1960s, scholars such as Joan Woodward, Paul Lawrence, and Jay Lorsch introduced contingency theory, suggesting that individuals resolve these tensions by taking the context and environment into account. Paradox theory offers an alternative approach, suggesting that these tensions cannot be resolved. By depicting competing demands as tensions that are not only contradictory, but also interdependent and persistent, paradox theory argues that actors need to accept, engage, and navigate tensions rather than resolve them. Foundational work on paradox in organizations emerged starting in the late 1970s and 1980s. This work drew from rich insights across a variety of disciplines, including Eastern philosophy (Taoism, Confucianism), Western philosophies (Hegel, Heraclitus), psychodynamics (Jung, Adler, Frankel), psychology (Schneider, Watzlawick), political science (Marx, Engel), communications and sociology (Taylor, Bateson), and negotiations and conflict resolution (Follett). More recent work has advanced foundational building blocks toward a theory of paradox. Underlying the theory of paradox is ontologies of dualism—two opposing elements that together form an integrated unity—and dynamism— ongoing change. Scholars have defined paradox as tensions that are contradictory, interdependent, and persistent, noting their dynamic, everchanging, cyclical nature. Some scholars describe the origins of paradox as inherent within systems, while others highlight their social construction through cognition, dialogue, and rationality. Still others explore the relationship between the inherent and socially constructed nature of tensions, depicting tensions as latent within a system, becoming salient through social construction and external conditions. Moreover, some scholars focus more on understanding the poles of paradox, while others depict the ongoing dynamic interaction and evolution. As paradox theory continues to grow and expand, scholars have also added complexity to our understanding, emphasizing paradoxes as nested across levels and as knotted and interwoven across various tensions, while also taking into account the power dynamics, uncertainty, plurality, and scarcity of systems within which paradoxes emerge. This article identifies scholarship that depicts these varied approaches and ideas, providing the foundations of paradox theory for scholars new to this field and in-depth analysis for those seeking to expand their understanding. Section 1 offers foundational work. Section 2 introduces early scholarship that launched the field. Section 3 includes work describing foundational building blocks toward a theory of paradox. Section 4 highlights research that recognizes the nested nature of paradox and describes how this theory has been applied across different levels. Section 5 includes papers that address the meta-theoretical and multi-paradigmatic aspect of paradox theory, noting how these ideas have been applied across phenomena and across theoretical lenses. Section 6 describes papers that draw on the varied methodological traditions associated with paradox. Finally, section 7 identifies several handbooks and special issues that offer an introduction to or integration of paradox theory.
The Pillars of the Paradox: Foundational Papers
The early foundational work in organizational paradox dates back to the late 1970s and 1980s, and it established paradox as a core lens through which to understand organizational phenomena. These different insights emerged out of multiple traditions. One of the earliest pieces, Benson 1977 draws on the work of Hegel, Marx, and Engels to introduce the idea of dialectics in organizations. Discussion continues to this day about the distinctions and synergies between dialectical and paradoxical perspectives (see, e.g., Hargrave and van de Ven 2017, cited under Different Traditions and Influences). Putnam 1986, a foundational work, draws its roots from communication and sociology from writers such as Taylor, Bateson, and Watzlewick, while the core insight of Smith and Berg 1987 grew out of work on psychodynamics from scholars such as Jung, Adler, Frankel, and Freud. In 2000, Marianne Lewis wrote her AMR paper, “Exploring Paradox: Toward a More Comprehensive Guide” (Lewis 2000), which brings together these traditions and has inspired the next generation of those examining paradox. In doing so, she won AMR’s best paper of the year award.
Benson, J. Kenneth. “Organizations: A Dialectical View.” Administrative Science Quarterly 22.1 (1977): 1–21.
Benson draws heavily on insights from Marx and Engels, providing a dialectical perspective of organizations in which contradictions morph and change over time into new integrations. This piece constitutes an early introduction to thinking about organizational systems as embodiments of oppositional tensions. Benson suggests that understanding these tensions depends on four basic principles: social construction, totality, contradiction, and praxis.
Cameron, Kim S. “Effectiveness as Paradox: Consensus and Conflict in Conceptions of Organizational Effectiveness.” Management Science 32.5 (1986): 539–553.
Cameron reviews the areas of consensus and conflicts in the literature on effectiveness and in doing so describes the inherently paradoxical nature of effectiveness in organizations. He argues that to be effective an organization must own attributes that are simultaneously contradictory, even mutually exclusive.
Clegg, Stewart R., ed. Management and Organization Paradoxes. Advances in Organization Studies 9. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2002.
Scholars debate the source of paradox as socially constructed and symbolic or inherent and material. Clegg organizes this edited volume to address this paradox of paradoxes. The first section addresses “representing paradoxes,” highlighting the role of symbols and discourse to create paradoxes. The second section focuses on “materializing paradoxes,” describing paradox within various organizational phenomena.
Clegg, Stewart R., João Vieira da Cunha, and Miguel Pina e Cunha. “Management Paradoxes: A Relational View.” Human Relations 55.5 (2002): 483–503.
The authors offer a relational view of paradox. They discern four regularities from the literature: first, the simultaneous presence of opposites is the everyday experience in management; second, a relationship is often found between the opposing poles (synthesis); third, this synthesis emerges when the relationship’s structural side is kept at a minimal level, and the relationship is mutually reinforcing; finally, this relationship is local, it cannot be designed but emerges from situated practice.
Lewis, Marianne. W. “Exploring Paradox: Toward a More Comprehensive Guide.” Academy of Management Review 25.4 (2000): 760–776.
This article advances foundational ideas of organizational paradox. Lewis defines paradox as “contradictory yet interrelated elements—elements that seem logical in isolation but absurd and irrational when appearing simultaneously” (p. 760). She develops a framework that starts with tensions (self-referential loops, mixed messages, and system contradictions), identifies defense mechanisms that lead to reinforcing cycles, and explores management strategies to tap into the power of paradox. She further categorizes paradoxes of learning, organizing, and belonging.
Poole, Marshall S., and Andrew H. van de Ven. “Using Paradox to Build Management and Organization Theories.” Academy of Management Review 14.4 (1989): 562–578.
The authors explore how paradox thinking can be used to improve our approaches to theorizing. They describe paradoxes as “social paradoxes” that exist in the real world, subject to temporal and spatial constraints, and they propose four strategies for addressing social paradoxes: opposition, accepting the contradiction and using it; spatial separation, defining clear levels of analysis; temporal separation, taking time into account; and synthesis, adopting new term to overcome paradoxes. They illustrate each of these four approaches by exploring the paradoxical tension between structure and agency.
Putnam, Linda L. “Contradictions and Paradoxes in Organizations.” In Organization-Communication: Emerging Perspectives. Edited by Lee Thayer, 151–167. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1986.
Putnam draws on theories of discourse, communication, and group relations to introduce a categorization of three types of paradoxes: contradictory messages in which words conflict with actions or in roles; paradoxes or double binds, which highlights self-referential interactions due to the dynamics between actors; and system contradictions in which the tensions are embedded within the organizational structures.
Quinn, Robert E., and Kim S. Cameron, eds. Paradox and Transformation: Toward a Theory of Change in Organization and Management. Cambridge MA: Ballinger, 1988.
This edited volume includes essays from luminaries in organizational theory offering insights about how paradox can inform and is informed by strategic thinking, organizational change, communication, and group dynamics. These now classic essays provide foundational insights for applying paradox theory to organizational phenomena.
Smith, Kenwyn K., and David N. Berg. Paradoxes of Group Life: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis, and Movement in Group Dynamics. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987.
Smith and Berg define paradox as “a statement or set of statements that are self-referential and contradictory and trigger a vicious cycle” (p. 12). They trace the roots of paradoxical thought drawing heavily on psychoanalysis, and they highlight twelve paradoxes within groups and merge them in three different categories: paradoxes of belonging, paradoxes of engaging, and paradoxes of speaking. This text offers an early approach to exploring paradox within organizational phenomena.
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