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The Role Of Paradox In High-Performance Culture

  Steve Longan     Nov 13, 2014

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The Navy SEALs met us in the lobby of our hotel. Sunrise was about 10 minutes away. As 50 of us tried to rub the sleep out of our eyes, JC stood on the steps of the staircase exiting the lobby and gave us the scarcest of instructions about what we would be doing that morning. And before we knew it (partially due to sleep deprivation; partially due to the quickness with which they hustled us into rows of 2) we were jogging in formation in the half-light before dawn. We made our way down to the beach as the sun came over the horizon and burned off the slight haze hanging over the beach.

I’m sure that Steve and Jason will have some stories of our time with the Navy SEALs, but, for now, I want to draw out one remarkable part of the training session with them. Over the course of the session, as we competed with each other in teams, they would periodically yell one of the following phrases at us:

  • "FINISH FIRST!"
  • "FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION!"
  • "LEAVE NO MAN BEHIND!"

Let’s think about those statements for a minute. If you take each on its own, they’re perfect rallying calls: simple, motivational, short. But what about when you put them next to each other?  Now…..now they’re not so clear — now they’re a little harder to rally behind. My internal monologue reads:

  • “Do we all have to finish together?”
  • “What if someone on my team is endangering the goal of finishing first?”
  • “If I leave them behind, isn’t that a sort of failure?”

And then, if you're anything like me, you end up stuck because you’re not sure which set of goals is more important and which set of consequences is preferable for failure at one of them.

And isn’t our work that way sometimes? Full of priorities, values and goals that seem to be in competition with each other and threaten us with the consequences for whichever priority we subordinate to the other(s)?  For instance:

  • "How many people can I serve well vs. how many people can I serve, period?" (quality vs. quantity)
  • "How can I go over and above this client’s expectations vs. what they are actually paying for?"
  • "How do I choose when success in my professional and personal life are at odds with each other?"

The common dynamic, both in the training exercise with the Navy SEALs and the questions from above, is that of paradox: When two truths (or goals) compete with or appear to mutually exclude one another.

In coming Wireboard articles, I’ll put out some paradoxes that define our work (along with some ideas for navigating them).  For now, I’d just like to offer one foundational rule that will help you stay grounded as you engage with the paradoxes in your work:

Resist the temptation to marginalize or let go of one of the goals. When we're confronted with competing goals in our work, the temptation is to declare one of the goals unimportant. But this doesn't work if we want to have a high-performance culture.

Think about our Navy SEAL trainers once they're back in the field: If you're under fire from enemies while on a mission of high importance and your life might very well depend on the guy next to you, ask yourself, "Would I rather work with someone who picked one of our goals (i.e. "Accomplish the mission!" and "Leave no man behind!") and let the other one go? Or would I rather stand with someone who pushed both himself and the team to try and accomplish both?" I know which one I'd choose. And that is a key feature of high-performance teams: they will keep the tension that exists between the competing goals - knowing that that tension will help push their performance.

So, what about you? What about your work? Where do you see goals and values in competition with one another? How are those paradoxes fostering a performance culture in your work? I'd love to chat about that if you want to leave a comment below.

Cheers to positive growth!  - Longan

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Steve Longan

Written by Steve Longan

Steve Longan is Rewire's Director of Research & Program Development. He's passionate about leveraging psychology and communication to develop growing, healthy workplaces. He's at "peak zen" (his words) when he's in his music studio.

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