Marianne Lewis shows how to turn tensions into opportunities for growth.
- Why to never ask yourself “Should I…?”
- How to find and benefit from the yin and yang of everything
- The three steps for better decision-making
Marianne W. Lewis is dean and professor of management at the Lindner College of Business, University of Cincinnati. She previously served as dean of Cass (recently renamed Bayes) Business School at City, University of London, and as a Fulbright scholar. A thought leader in organizational paradoxes, she explores tensions and competing demands surrounding leadership and innovation.
Lewis has been recognized among the world’s most-cited researchers in her field (Web of Science) and received the Paper of the Year award (2000) and Decade Award (2021) from the Academy of Management Review. She enjoys her three children and two grandchildren from her home base in Cincinnati.
- Book: Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems
- Website: BothAndThinking.net
Marianne, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Oh, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. We’re talking about Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems. I like so much those words. So, can you kick us off with maybe a particularly surprising or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about problem-solving from all of your research and teaching here?
Pete, I’ve been studying tensions, competing demands, that tug-of-war we feel in our hearts, whether it’s dealing with strategy, dealing with our lives, dealing with teams, for about 25 years. And I think the big aha and the reason I spent two-plus decades doing this was early in my career when I realized that our default is to this either/or thinking, that we get into this challenge, and we say, “Geez, do I spend my energy on work or life? Do I think about my performing and hitting my current targets or do I need to step back and learn and look around?”
And in this either/or approach, we weigh the pros and cons of these two sides and we make a choice and we think we can move on. Sometimes that can work if these are really simplistic issues but most times, either/or thinking is really limiting. It’s, “Are we really limited to only two?” Or, worse, when you start to kind of play that out, you go down this rabbit hole of saying, “Well, wait a minute, if I put all my energy into hitting my current targets, that would be great. I would excel, I would have lots to show on my resume, I would’ve proven my worth. But then life could change around me and I wouldn’t be ready. I’d be flatfooted.”
“But if all I did was…” So, let’s go to the other one, “If I really focus on learning, and I’m in higher-ed and I love learning, but if that was all I did, would I really make an impact? Would I make sure I’m applying what I’m learning in process?” And so, you get into this, you get stuck because what you really need is you need both. And so, what my work originally kind of focused on and the aha was we’re limited in our thinking, in our default. The good news is there’s a better way.
Okay. Well, that is good news. And so, if that is our default, I imagine it’d be quite possible that we’re doing it and we don’t even notice that we’re doing it. That’s what often happens with defaults.
That it’s really automatic.
So, could you maybe give us a few rapid-fire examples to shake us out of it a little bit? It’s like, “Here’s what I mean by both/and versus either/or, and just notice that there might be more to things than first meets the eye.”
Yeah, I’ll give you a classic example. We talked to people who’ll say, “Boy, I’m not crazy about the work I’m doing right now. So, do I stay or do I go?” And you’re kind of seeing a little clash as you’re thinking about that. But, again, you don’t really have to decide black and white, “Do I stay or do I leave this job?” You could also say, the both/and approach is, “Well, what do I like about what I do? What do I not like about what I do? Are there ways that I could either, personally and/or with my supervisor, talk about I need more of this and less of this? And how do I have those kinds of conversations?”
Or, vice versa, if I say, “Boy, what I don’t have this in job is what I’m starting to realize is what I truly want in life.” Well, it’s not just then going. It’s getting much sharper about what you want. If not, you’ll be in this grass-is-always-greener. You’ll get there and go, “How did I get…? Wait, this isn’t it either.”
And it’s kind of a constant flipping.
So, to us, both/and is about really diving into both sides of the equation, and saying, “At its best, what does each side bring? And at its worst, if that was all I did, what’s the problem there?” Because it’s through that kind of thinking you realize, “Okay, I could get more creative here.” And now it’s not a stay or go. It’s, “Let’s really dig into what do I want in my work.”
So, I use that example, Pete, because I think we’ve had, in some ways, kind of a global existential crisis during the pandemic. We’ve got a lot of people thinking, “Is this really what I want to be doing?” and questioning, and sometimes questioning in two simplified a way of, “Do I just leave?” you know, the Great Resignation. And then you find, I mean, we’re seeing this already in research that the Great Resignation has a lot of people not any happier in their second one because they haven’t thought through that fully what they want and what they don’t.
Well, thank you, that’s powerful, Marianne. And I was just about to challenge a little bit in terms of, “Well, ultimately, aren’t you either staying or going?” I mean, you could, of course, optimize, and finetune, and change, and have some good conversations about how to improve where you are, although that’s sort of a subset, I would say, if we’re going to nitpick about definitions of staying. But I guess what you’re putting forward here is, just by framing it that way, you’re missing out.
Yeah, I think framing, that’s what…Wendy Smith is my co-author in the book and long-time research colleague. We think framing is hugely important, and it starts with really both/and thinking, starts with changing the kinds of questions we ask. That classic either/or question starts with, typically, a word like “do,” “Do I…?” “Do I stay or go?” versus a more typical both/and question that starts with “how,” “How would I make the most of what I like and where I am? And what am I missing? And how would I find a new combination?” because there are lots of combinations possible.
And you’re right, it still could sound like stay or go, but let me give you a couple of examples because Wendy and I worked with a variety of people who have gone through this one. It could also decide, “Well, maybe what I’m going to do is I’m going to stay for now, and I’m going to build a three- to six-month plan so that leaving means a much better view of what do I really need. And how do I leave in a way that doesn’t leave my team in a lurch or feel like I’ve been disloyal?”
If you unpack that stay-or-go challenge, you find that there are lots of other challenges within it that are going to make us lean towards one side or the other, and we’re going to have to deal with those if we’re going to really make a decision that has some lasting power and some creativity to it, for that matter.
That’s really powerful because I think we could really feel the urgency and the, well, tension associated with, “Oh, well, I need to reach a decision, and, ultimately, these are the only categories that we could fall into.” And, yet, by taking that pathway of either/or, we miss out on surfacing what’s really most important, what are some cool options beyond that, and then how do we get there.
So, I really like that notion of just check yourself if you’re asking a question “Do I…?” as opposed to “How…” that puts you down some different pathway. So, can you expand upon those in terms of what are some either/or-style questions or things to be on the lookout for and their both/and counterparts?
Well, I’ll give you an interesting version of this. Sometimes people can ask, “Do I focus on the financial benefits of my job or the work that I’m doing, like grow the money, grow the profit, grow the margins, or do I focus on the social responsibility, my impact, how do I better the world?” Do you have a business school? I can’t stand that question because they should be synergistic and we’ve seen amazing leaders learn how to do both. But they changed that question to, “How can I grow my profits through social responsibility?”
That was a question posed by Paul Polman when he was turning around Unilever, and his goals were to double the profits while having their environmental footprint, and people said, “You’re crazy. That’s not how it works. The bigger you are the more damage you do.” And he said, “No, we touch two billion consumers a day at Unilever. We can’t afford that.”
And I actually just had an executive in my office who ran Gerber clothing, for children’s clothes, and he said, “Clothing is notorious for being unsustainable. We throw away billions of pounds, let alone tons of wasted clothing.” Unilever and Paul, who’s such a both/and thinker we study and write about him in the book, but this leader was talking about at Gerber, too, is you start to realize, actually, by being sustainable, you reduce wastes, you’re more efficient. By the way, that means you reduce costs which increases profit.
And, by being socially responsible, you have a whole host of customers who say, “I have choices,” and you will have customers say, “I’m going to choose, I would rather choose a firm that’s sustainable.” And, by the way, as we’ve seen from lots of these same firms, we actually have investors who will eventually, and this is happening increasingly, say, “I actually want to invest in more sustainable firms.”
And so, here are these questions of, “Do I focus on the financial and my social responsibilities?” and maybe not as quickly as we like, but it is becoming a moot point. The leaders of Toyota were saying this with quality and costs. In the ‘80s, they practically put the American auto manufacturers out of business because we were sitting there, going, “Oh, no, it doesn’t work that way. The higher the quality, the higher the costs.” And they said, “No, the higher the quality, the lower the rework, the more efficient,” right? And then you see Toyota and Honda take off.
I just gave you two strategic examples but we ask those similar types of questions in our lives, both in our work and our decisions about the work that we do in our own values. And I’d like us to open our minds a bit and reframe, as you said.
Okay. Well, when it comes to our minds, you’ve got an interesting term – the paradox mindset. What is that and how can it help us?
Yeah, a paradox mindset. So, when we think about either/or, we think about tradeoffs. Picture, like, a scale, and you’re doing this weighing between the sides. When we think about a both/and thinking, we put those opposing decisions into a Yin-Yang, which is such a beautiful symbol of paradox. So, if you can picture the Yin-Yang, you have kind of a black-and-white sliver, and so you’ve got two sides to this. But there’s also this dynamic flow between them where you see that they actually define each other. It’s only together that you see this whole of the circle.
And if you can kind of picture the Yin-Yang in your mind, as you move higher into, say, the dark, there’s actually a pin prick of white. And the view is, as you get higher and higher into one side, you actually feel more pull in this ebb and flow into the other. This is night and day. It’s love and hate. It’s trust and distrust, self and other. I’m being more philosophical here, but those play into the way we think about challenges.
Why is a financial responsibility and social responsibility opposites on a scale versus Yin and Yang? And how could they work together more synergistically? So, that was a way of sharing. The reason we use the term paradox is to start to change our views from a tradeoff to this Yin-Yang mindset. And a paradox mindset means two things, we have two dimensions, and we’ve measured this now over thousands of people. It’s in multiple languages.
We started in three. We started in Chinese, Israeli, and then in the US, an American. I guess I did geography. This is where we did the study. But what we found is there are two dimensions. One is some people are more sensitized to see and feel tensions. Now, that could be because you’re in a particularly stressful conflict-laden time so there are a lot of tensions around you, and it can be you’re somebody like me who sees them in their sleep. I pick them out very quickly. And the more you practice paradox thinking, actually, the more sensitized you become regardless of your work.
So, there’s the, “How much do you experience and see tensions.” And then the other side is, “How much, when you see them, do you see tensions as just a problem to either ignore, work through, and move quickly? Or, do you see them as an opportunity that in that tension there is this creative friction and an opportunity to learn, innovate, grow?”
What we found is people who have this paradox mindset, they see tensions as opportunities, they think about them as this Yin-Yang, are much more likely, according to their supervisors, to be more productive and more creative, and, according to themselves, to be more happy, to be more satisfied. So, what we’re finding with the paradox mindset is, especially if you’re dealing with tensions, that ability to move into them, seeing opportunity, benefits for learning, and working toward a both/and, will pay off in really powerful ways for you as an individual and probably for your organization given those benefits.
Well, could you give us several examples of individuals who, they saw some tensions and then they considered them with a both/and perspective, or paradox mindset, and cool things emerged as a result?
Yeah, I’ll give you a few of some leaders that I’ve enjoyed studying over the years. Muhtar Kent is fascinating. He was the CEO and chairman of Coca-Cola, which is an interesting example because one of the tensions we see quite a bit is global versus local. And you could think about this also as kind of centralized/decentralized is another way to think about it. But Coca-Cola is actually the best-known image in the world, even better than Mickey Mouse. People just know the red can anywhere.
So, you have this huge global reach and scale. Scale provides you incredible opportunities, really well-coordinated impact, reach, etc., and you’re talking about Coca-Cola. You’re talking about something you drink, taste, as differentiated locally as imaginable. And so, Coca-Cola, and particularly Muhtar, would always say, “Look, we have to be the best-known global brand, and leverage that scale, and have this tremendous value appreciation tapping into those local differences as possible. We have to be both if we are truly going to be a global brand.”
And if you go to the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, you will see they have lots of variations based on local differentiation of taste. So, even as a global brand, it also has local differences. Even that it has a global reach and scale of like the Walmarts and Amazons of the world, they also are really good at tapping into very local supply chains, retailers, because, depending on where you’re going, sometimes big boxes, let alone Amazon, they’re not there. So, that’s just a different kind of view of the global/local.
Another one I would share is a fun discussion I’ve had recently with Rocketbook. We wrote about it in Fast Company. But Rocketbook is dealing, like everybody else, with hybrid work, what do you do home versus away. And one of the reasons we started working on this with Fast Company, and we ended up going at Rocketbook, is that people might think that hybrid work is a win-win, but most often, it’s actually experienced as a lose-lose because you’ve lost the boundaries between work and home.
So, you go into work and you’re sitting on Zoom calls. That doesn’t exactly feel like a value to me. You’ve just on the commute and everything else. Or, you’re at home and you still got all of life and home, family, other things distracting and challenge around you, and you’re feeling like you’re really not at your best in either location.
So, talking with Jake and Joe, the co-founders of Rocketbook, Rocketbook does sustainable notebooks. They do reusable notebooks. It’s a really cool technology. I highly recommend it. They said, “Pre-pandemic, we were already hybrid.” And I said, “Well, why?” And they said, “Because we believe in the power of work-at-home, or work-non-office, as deep work, that work that you really need solitude, focus.” And they have a lot of designers, engineers, and they said, “We want them to have that opportunity to be at their best selves.”
And, on the other hand, we knew, and we still believe this wholly, that the best creativity will always happen around a table with a whiteboard, with all these, and that takes in the office. And so, because they had already believed in the power of hybrid work, they came out of COVID really strong because they kind of perfected why you come in, when you come in, how you come in, and when you would work at home.
And they learned this creative way to be both/and, to think about those synergies in ways that made people keep the differences, value separation, they used lots of cool ways to use technologies that we all use, like Outlook and other platforms, to respect people’s deep-work time and, while they’re at home, also have times that you say, “Now, I’m going grocery shopping.” They really got creative in how they use both.
But I think that’s a very different way than a lot of firms saying, “Is it three days or two days?” There’s a very basic approach to hybrid that isn’t how are you deeply making the most of the time together and the time apart. So, I would note those two because I love both options, and I think we’ve lived them in our lives, not just at an organization level.
Intriguing. So, the Rocketbook parameters then, for whether you work from home or from the office on a given day, is not just blanket two days, three days, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, but rather, “What is the nature of what you’re working on, and then, please, freely come into the office so we can do that better, or stay at home so you can do that better?”
Yeah. And the other way I would say that, Pete, is we talk about in the book one of the key assumptions to moving to the both/and mindset is moving from thinking about your resources as scarce to abundant, and that an abundant mindset matters. And so, it was interesting talking to the folks at Rocketbook because time is a classic resource.
And so, you could say, “Well, yeah, but there are only 24 hours in the day, or eight hours in a workday,” whatever. And what Jake and Joe would say is, “Yeah, but every hour isn’t created equally.” Like, I’m a morning person, I like it super early, okay, then I’m going to work from 5:00 till 10:00. It’s going to be my deep-work time. I don’t want to be bothered from 5:00 till 10:00. But I want you to know I’m on it. And, by the way, I’m then going to take a break because I’m going to be really low, and then I’m going to come in for a few hours.
And so, they figured out ways to make that, and then, at the same time, they have people who are super late-night owls and they’ll even have office times, like at 11:00 o’clock. But my point with the abundance mindset is it’s not that they’re using more time or less time. They’re using time better, and they’re using it in a way, to your point about, yes, it’s the home versus work, but it’s also time that they’re playing with, to say, “What is the kind of work you’re trying to do? When are you at your best?” versus, “When do we get people together, whether it’s on Zoom or in the office?”
It’s a more nuanced approach than the, “Is it three days or two days? And, by the way, is it 8:00 to 5:00?” And I like that. I think that really is empowering to people.
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, tell me, Marianne, anything else you want to make sure to mention, any top do’s or don’ts about both/and thinking or embracing creative tensions we should cover before we hear about some of your favorite things?
I think I would just, as a key takeaway, and, obviously you can do dive deeper in the book, we talk about kind of three key steps. You need to change the question you ask from this either/or to an “and,” “How do I accommodate my opposing, my competing demands?” The second piece is, instead of just weighing the pros and cons, and we say, “You need to separate and connect. You need to pull apart that Yin-Yang, think about really what you value on both sides, and then think about how you’re going to hold it together with a higher vision and some key guides.”
And then the third piece is you start to change the way you think about your solutions. Because, again, with either/or, the end result is a single choice. But with a paradox, when you’re dealing with these kinds of tensions, they don’t really go away. I might decide today between work and home, but I’ll have to decide again tomorrow, or I may have to decide between, “Am I really going to focus on current targets or learning for the future? But I’ll have to make that decision again.”
So, we think about one of the most kind of key decision-making modes that we see of people who are really good at both/and thinking, is think about it as tight-rope walking. You’re continuing to move forward but you’re making these kinds of micro decisions on an ongoing basis between challenges, between work or home, between social and financial, between learning and performing, between self and others, where your focus is.
But you don’t let yourself lean so far to one side that you fall because that’s really hard to get back up, and it takes some intention to know that you are holding them together. You need both elements and you’re moving forward. So, I do think that’s key to think about kind of three steps, in some ways.
All right. Thank you. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
A quote that Wendy and I often return to was by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues at Stanford, they’re psychologists. And the quote is, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is the way we think about the problem.” And, to me, that’s key to this decision-making. It’s actually the way we thought about the problem has limited our solutions.
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
I think my favorite study was by Rothenberg. It was in 1979, I think, and Rothenberg was studying creative geniuses. He was studying Picasso, Mozart, Einstein, Virginia Woolf, and he was reading all their journals and different things. And what he’s finding was that the genius of these creative individuals came from valuing tensions, seeing them as opportunities; Picasso seeing light and dark; Einstein seeing things in movement and in rest; Virginia Woolf, it was life and death; Mozart was harmony and discord. He called it Janusian Thinking.
That was Rothenberg’s kind of finding. Janus was this two-faced god, looking in two directions simultaneously. But his point was that these creative geniuses found real value in the tensions. They sought conflicts for their greatest works, and I think that is a huge takeaway of instead of viewing these as problems, as in things that we want to avoid, work through as fast as possible, we should seek them out because they have potential, fodder, fuel, for really great creative opportunities.
Okay. And a favorite book?
I think my favorite book is probably The Tao of Physics by Frank Capra. This is just a fascinating book. It goes back to Einstein. I really think Einstein and all the individuals that developed quantum physics were in this paradox mindset in a way that was really cool. But The Tao of Physics basically talked about how they turn to Taoism and insights from the Yin-Yang and ancient philosophy because they were literally thinking, “I’m going to go crazy because I don’t understand how something can be a particle and a wave. Which one is it? How can something be in motion or at rest?”
It was just one of those books. I kind of like a book that makes my head hurt sometimes because it’s really straining, and, at the same time, it’s kind of beautiful. And you realize, “Well, yeah, it was rocket science, it was quantum physics.” They went through some very simple powerful philosophy to get through it, keep themselves sane, but also get to a solution that was really remarkable with quantum physics.
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
Probably my favorite tool is the Polarity Map by Barry Johnson. It’s this really cool, simple approach to when you have a tension, a conflict, competing demands. You put it on this two-by-two grid. And on the one side, you put the highs and lows of that side, like, say, “I love a leadership. I’m a leader and I love to be innovative but I also like to be really disciplined.” Well, at your best, what does your innovative self look like? At its worst, if that’s all you did, like you’re really risky. And then, at the same time, you do, “At my disciplined best, and my disciplined worst, am I a real pain?”
And the point of Barry’s Polarity Map is, “How do you stay in the top two quadrants? How do you let the tight-rope walking? You’re probably not disciplined and innovative at the same time but you’re iterating between the two. And how do you avoid going down into the depths of the negative?” But I love the Polarity Map. It’s just a great tool.
And a favorite habit?
I’m not always good at this but I think meditation is a really powerful habit because I think our minds can get in our way, and meditation is just a powerful practice to just kind of clear out the mess and have some calm so that we might not jump so automatically to a place that isn’t always in our best interest, and listen to the voices that might be taking us the wrong direction in our heads.
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?
I think a key nugget is probably just the power of a paradox mindset, to say, at our best, let’s not get stuck in these vicious cycles of either/or thinking, which we think of as rabbit holes, wrecking balls, interfere, and really look for more creative lasting solutions. And that’s what I’m hoping our work is doing, taking it out of a more academic realm and thinking more about people’s lives and how do you deal with the tensions because they are human. That is what the world we live in, and it’s natural. But I also think tensions are beneficial.
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
I’d point them to BothAndThinking.net. They can find out more about the work we’ve done in media, more about the book, other places to hear and see us, but, also, there are lots of places you can buy it, and so we just try to put it at one-stop-shop over there.
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Boy, I think this is a challenging time. I think a lot of people are stepping back and kind of saying, “What do I want?” I hope people use both/and thinking to make those decisions because I know we can feel we want impact. We want meaning. We also want flexibility and finances. We want a lot of things from our jobs that can feel like they’re pulling in us in opposite directions. I think this is the time to be more creative and think differently about what we really want and need out of our jobs.
All right. Thank you, Marianne. I wish you much luck and cool results from both/and thinking.
Thank you. I wish you all the best, Pete. Thank you for this podcast.