Book Review for “The Oxford Handbook of Organizational Paradox”

Edited by Wendy K. Smith, Marianne W. Lewis, Paula Jarzabkowski, Ann Langley
Oxford University Press, Hardcover, ISBN: 9780198754428, 593 pages, 2017
Mehmet G. Yalcin, Ph.D.

Dr. Mehmet G. Yalcin is an Assistant Professor of Operations and Supply Chain Management at the University of Rhode Island, College of Business.

Keywords: paradox, dialectics, dualities

“The linguistic origin of the word paradox derives from two Greek words para (beyond) and doxa (belief); a paradox, therefore, is one that is incredible, absurd, or “beyond belief”. Note that, because it emphasizes going “beyond” conventional belief, there is a hint of the para-digmatic nature of paradox so that a situation may well appear paradoxical to someone but not to another from a different tradition, culture, or epoch; there is a relative dimension in the experience of paradox.” (Smith, Lewis, Jarzabkowski, Langley, 2017, p. 129)

Muhammad Hasan Ashraf who is a doctoral student of supply chain management in College of Business at The University of Rhode Island has done a great job again and offered his latest book review for the readers of Decision Line. Mr. Ashraf’s work will make you want to obtain a copy of this book…

The Oxford Handbook of Organization Paradox is an exceptional and an excellent work by Smith, Lewis, Jarzabkowski and Langley. The editors of the book have tremendously contributed to the research of organizational paradox in the past and through this ambitious work, they endeavor to ascertain the existence of a class of philosophers contributing to the organizational paradox. The book aims to accelerate the interest in paradox for the students, scholars and business professionals by bringing together some of the finest intellectuals of the paradox research. 

Wendy K. Smith earned her PhD in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School and currently is professor of management at University of Delaware. The second editor, Marianne W. Lewis is professor of management and dean of the Cass Business School, University of London. Paula Jarzabkowski is a professor of strategic management at the University of London and, Ann Langley is a professor of management at HEC Montreal, Canada. The book has been contributed by a large number of authors each chipping in their work through one or more chapters in the book. Authors adopt a variety of lenses, theories, and language to describe contradiction, paradox, tensions and dialectics.

The book is organized into three sections. The first section, foundations and approaches, has six chapters examining and extending the foundations of paradox theory. The second section, phenomena in and beyond organizations, contains nineteen chapters and illustrates paradox research across organizational phenomena and levels. The third and the final section, engaging paradoxes, has three chapters exploring the scholarly engagement with paradox from research methods to teaching to business engagement. The book juxtaposes paradox insights drawing on diverse theoretical approaches and applying to a broad range of phenomena. 

The book begins by drawing upon a variety of disciplines to discover the foundational understandings of paradox. Chapters in the first section highlight the limits of assuming a formal either/or logic which prevents the creative opportunities and breakthrough thinking. In Chapter 1, Schad identifies various foundational philosophies from formal Greek logic and highlights the wide-ranging definitions, assumptions and implications of paradox across foundational philosophy. The author argues that the literature lacks a systematic overview of the philosophical traditions and their links to different elements of paradox research in management. To fill this gap, he uses the term “ad fontes” that means to return to the sources i.e. The philosophical roots. He presents six philosophical lenses dealing with paradoxes and persistent tensions: logic, Eastern philosophy, dialectics, existentialism, philosophy of language and political philosophy. The second half of the chapter shows how the philosophical lens are applicable at different levels of analysis in management research, where some are more appropriate for certain managerial challenges but add little to others. Moving on to the second (Jarrett and Vince) and third (Keller and Chen) chapters, the authors explore individual-level engagement and interactions with paradox, drawing on psychoanalysis and cognitive theories respectively. The authors argue that psychoanalytic theories offer a framework for the study of emotions in organization and for the paradoxical tensions arising from emotions. The chapter explores constructs that shed light on the unconscious dynamics at work in organizations, alongside examples illustrating how organizational paradox can help transform understandings of relationships in groups and organizations. Likewise, the cognitive approach drives the researcher or the manager towards categorizing and highlighting the paradoxes. The authors examine how cognitive processes impact why paradoxes emerge and outlines a process of how an individual experiences paradox starting with stimuli generated by material conditions, followed by perception, affective responses and conscious or unconscious reasoning and finally by a response. 

Towards the end of the section, the authors examine how the social factors depict paradoxes as arising from individual and collective sensemaking. Holt and Zundel in chapter 4 explore the manner in which abstraction of language provides an efficient form of reasoning in which one is able to identify classes of people, things and activities. Drawing upon Epimenides the Cretan statement, “Cretans, always liars”, authors unfold how an essence of paradox was created. More interestingly, Chia and Nayak in the last chapter of the section shed light on how East and West cultures approach to deal with paradoxes. The West on one hand is well aware of the shortcomings and limitations of formal logic, language and reason, whereas, the East on the other hand is rich in paradoxes. In Eastern thought, paradox is the norm rather than the exception. Chinese language, in particular, differs substantially from the austere language and logic of the West. To understand Chinese is to learn to “decrypt the conversations and to constantly seek alternative meanings”. Not only the language, even the traditional philosophical streams in the East are concerned with the conduct of life, as well as with the relation between the individual and the whole. Perhaps the most recognizable Oriental symbol, Yin/Yang, symbolizes interdependent opposites. Chia and Nayak end the chapter by recognizing divisions and distinctions that emerge from the abstractions of our mind. 

In the second section, the authors apply paradoxical lenses to different organizational theories and phenomena, extending intuitions within each of these domains, while at the same time broadening the knowledge of paradox. In chapter 7, Bommel and Spicer provide a critical theory perspective on paradox. The authors discuss the main principles of Critical Management Studies (CMS) and examine the paradoxes that exist within the CMS. The primary relation of CMS to paradox theory is that CMS tries to make organizational contradictions explicit by critically scrutinizing mainstream management and organization studies. However, authors argue that CMS yet has been less successful at finding ways to cope with paradoxes. The primary reason given by the authors is the parasitic aspect of CMS since its existence is based on the things against which it rebels. Moving forward, in chapter 8, Tracey and Creed express disappointment in how institutional theorists had shown little interest in paradox. They introduce the institutional theory and argue that the intersection of paradox and institutional theory challenges the critical issues around social status, race, gender, etc. On one hand institutional theory portrays features that reinforce existing social order, whereas on the other, paradox theory explores where such fault lines exist. Authors argue that institutional and paradox theorists should take into account much broader range of actors and organizational settings to consider problems that stretch beyond managerial concerns and corporate performance, to instead focus on the paradoxes deep rooted in social issues facing the societies and economies. Drawing from two vignettes; 1) slave trading and 2) dining ritual at Cambridge University, authors depict institutional paradoxes that characterize the most deep-rooted and contentious social issues facing the societies and economies. Similarly, in chapter 9, Besharov and Sharma introduce the concept of organizational identity in the paradox domain and argue that it shares underlying concepts with paradox while highlighting the contradictory yet interdependent nature of features of organizational identity which can surface new, valuable insights. Their analysis focused on four key tensions: social reality versus social construction, stable versus dynamic, multiple versus singular and incompatible versus synergistic. On similar lines, authors in chapter 10 bring the concept of pluralism and paradox together to discuss their possible interrelation and the implications for the study of paradox within organizations. Likewise, chapters that follow underline different theories and phenomena’s that relate to organizational paradox. For instance, chapter 11 (Cameron) explains how paradox is illustrated in the emerging field of study i.e. Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS). The concept of POS incorporates the notion of “the positive” which focuses on extraordinarily positive outcomes of the organization. Correspondingly, authors in chapter 12 shed light on how managers deal with tensions that involve conflicting moral values. They introduce the concept of Economies of Worth (EW), where actors evaluate the worth of things and people in situations of disputes within and across social spheres. Most paradoxes have a moral dimension which is largely overlooked in the existing studies. Authors comprehensively present the commonalities and differences in EW and paradox frameworks and suggest that these elements can be leveraged by paradox scholars to theorize the normative dimension of paradoxes. 

Learning tensions between exploration and exploitation are the paradoxical relationship that has attracted the greatest research in recent years (Smith and Lewis, 2011). Recent scholarly debate has claimed that the firm’s ability to balance exploration and exploitation is associated with improved long-term firm performance. Authors in the chapter 16 argue that the organizations tend to experience three distinctive stages of managing the ambidexterity tensions; initiation stage where paradoxes are identified and defined, contextualization stage to design processes to manage tensions and lastly, implementation stage to work through the paradox in daily operations. 

Another equally interesting topic is sustainability which has become a buzzword in management and politics. Chapter 18 (Jay, Soderstrom and Grant) examines the important topic of paradoxes of sustainability. The aim of the sustainability is to achieve a “win-win” for organization, and the society, however, this agenda often clashes with paradoxes arising due to inadequacy of resources and plurality of viewpoints from numerous stakeholders involved. The authors in this chapter explore the “contradictory yet interrelated” elements that exist simultaneously over time in theory and practice of sustainability. They have done an amazing job by drawing on a range of examples to prove how sustainable paradoxes are salient to the organizations and the stakeholders involved. Authors argue that plurality of stakeholders act as a defining feature for sustainability efforts which may lead to companies undertaking a process of stakeholder engagement and management. Consequently, this engagement may result in a change from dominant practices to a new set of sustainability-oriented practices. For example, facing the aftermath of Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, H&M changed their previous supplier management processes and also added metrics for employee wages, cost of labor, safety inspections, took more control over certain factories and joined industry accords for worker safety. Towards the end of the chapter the authors present the strategies to respond to the paradoxes embedded in sustainable initiatives, including a mix of defensive strategies that seek short-term relief from paradox and active strategies that acknowledge paradox in a more enduring way (Jarzabkowski).  

Section 2 comprises the crux of the book where authors examine the interplay between paradox and varied theoretical lenses and approaches. Phenomena’s such as temporality, human resource management (HRM), creativity and individual identity are reviewed to determine how they fuel reinforcing cycles and contribute to paradox framework. Towards the end of this section, the authors emphasize the consequence of the divide between academic and practitioner that raises some of the ultimate tensions around how to address core problems. The duality that exists between the two parties is consistent with the expectation that the relationship between them reflects underlying paradoxes. The authors portray the similarities between academics and practitioners as they believe it would help provide common ground that can form the basis for building relationships between them. Finally, the section is ended by presenting a practice-theory framework which is based on social construction and everyday practice that can generate new understandings about paradoxes. Using rich examples, the authors are able to layout a research agenda that explores the mutual interests of the two approaches and enables practice theory to address some of the under discovered elements in paradox studies. 

The third and final section of the book is titled as engaging paradoxes and portrays the experiences of the authors as scholars, teachers and consultants. The authors underscore the importance of the business school instructors in creating appropriate conditions through which students can see and appreciate the paradoxical nature of tensions in real context. They propose that paradoxes should be given importance through capstone consultancy courses and recommend specific suggestions about how to develop curriculum for an MBA capstone course outlining the implications of paradox theory. Lastly, through a case, the authors end the book by describing the experience of citizens and public officials in Charleston, SC as they applied the paradoxical approach to address complex social challenges. One of the policies of the paradoxical approach was the Polarity Approach for Continuity and Transformation (PACT) which was incorporated in the Charleston Police Department. On June 17, 2015 a tragedy took place in Charleston where nine parishioners were killed by a gunman. Acknowledging the tensions between various groups in the community, Charleston police used the PACT to address the tensions at a deeper level. The process promoted offering ideas for improvements that police and citizens can make together and, demonstrated that all the involved parties supported leveraging “and” thinking to strengthen relationships amongst each other. The ending of the book at such a high note provokes us to introduce paradox into our own lives by offering us tools, models and examples to help us do so. 

This book is undoubtedly one of the most comprehensive ones I have ever came across accentuating the paradoxes of knowledge. As it is said that the more we know, the more we know we do not know, the authors in this book uncover how much there is to learn. The book is highly recommended for the students and scholars who are actively involved in the paradox research. Each chapter of the book inspires new research questions, motivate future alliances, and encourage provocative research. Moreover, the book is highly advised for the practitioners as well, who face paradoxes/dilemmas on daily basis. Drawing on the examples given in the book, they can acknowledge how crucial it is to complement the “or” thinking with “and” thinking to enhance strength, reduce polarization and improve quality of life. Well done all the contributors!

Dr. Mehmet G. Yalcin is an Assistant Professor of Operations and Supply Chain Management at the University of Rhode Island, College of Business. Mehmet held various engineering and managerial positions prior to joining academia where he has been recognized with research and teaching awards. He is a certified Black Belt in Lean/Six Sigma (LSS), and Logistics, Transportation, and Distribution (CLTD) and teaches Operations and Supply Chain Management courses to students and practitioners. Dr. Yalcin’s research focus is at the interface of sustainability and innovation with the focal point on Supply Chain Ambidexterity (SCX).

Updated: March 4, 2020 — 10:36 am

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