The Ease and Complication of Both/And

By FCS | May 29, 2019

“The Constitution’s a mess, So it needs amendments, It’s full of contradictions, So is independence…”

– “Non-Stop” from Broadway’s Hamilton

In our age of polarizing ideas, both visible and imagined dividing lines and all-or-nothing mindsets, it’s easy to think solutions must be absolute. You might also be swayed to think the loudest voice or the deepest pocketbook determines outcomes. Or you might resign yourself to an opinion that has been drilled into you by 24/7 news broadcasts, all of which have their own journalistic slants and biases.

An everyday look at conflict resolution substantiates the ready acceptance of choosing one side and leaving the other. Some people can resign themselves to be on the “losing” side of a decision. For those of us less inclined to accept conflict, we can give up on many issues and walk away, as facing the potential wrath of someone with an opposing viewpoint is too much. But what if we employed a conflict resolution strategy that includes multiple sides?

The “Both/And” method of problem-solving flies in the face of one-sided viewpoints and rigid mindsets. In the Harvard Business Review article, “Both/And” Leadership” by Wendy K. Smith, Marianne W. Lewis and Michael L. Tushman, the authors discuss the cognitive dissonance of accepting contradictory ideas: “If one idea is “right,” its opposite must be wrong; if that seems not to be the case, then we must redefine our idea to eliminate the contradiction…”

It is more comfortable to deal with contradictory ideas, or “paradoxical tensions” by the authors’ definition, by picking a side and consistently supporting it. The idea of creating a “dynamic equilibrium” through paradoxical relationships requires both separating and connecting opposing forces. It is not enough to develop collective ideas; “without encouraging deep respect for the distinct value and needs of each stakeholder group, the result can be a bland compromise—a “false synergy.” At worst, one point of view dominates, leaving the other to wither.”

Since I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that being the loudest or the wittiest or the boldest is not always the solution to reaching your desired outcome in a difficult situation. Wit is not my strong suit: long after a conversation, I think of things I could have said that might have made a difference. I’ve also concluded we can’t always legitimately assume we can convince other people of what we believe or what we think they should do. The idea of “Both/And” opens the door for decision-makers to give and receive information to make realizations on their own. It requires a higher level of emotional compromise that is truly revolutionary. It is a mutual respect of multiple decisions and decision-makers to find the “Both/And” to embrace, as Alexander Hamilton would say, the messes and contradictions to find a dynamic equilibrium.

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