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Why coming to grips with your core personal paradox is vital

I used to think I was a gentle tiger. Now I see myself as a rebellious loyalist.

What's your core personal paradox?

I wrote last week about organizational paradoxes and the need to grapple openly with them. But we also carry within us personal paradoxes that can thwart our career trajectory. It's vital to come to grips with them as well.

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Sometimes they emerge as derailers: The confidence we need to lead turns into ego-driven actions, arrogance being what we are known for.

Other times, they are more subtle, personal qualities and characteristics that clash. This can be a problem, for ourselves and those around us. We do one thing one day and another the next, seemingly by whim but really expressing different parts of ourselves. I can remember the secretary who used to warn me when it was not safe to approach the boss if it seemed Mr. Hyde was loose. Being a gentle tiger, I ignored her.

But it can be an opportunity, according to Jerry Fletcher and Kelle Olwyler, authors of the 1997 book Paradoxical Thinking: How to Profit from Your Contradictions. "The route to sustaining high performance is to consciously and actively encourage yourself to be paradoxical," they wrote.

Think of people you know who carry positive, contradictory traits. The authors pointed to Bill Gates, known as a "practical visionary." Sam Walton embodied three critical paradoxes. He was relentlessly focused on winning but was also totally flexible, willing to try anything that seemed reasonable. He was creative but also willing to copy anything that worked well elsewhere. He was an excellent motivator, willing to give people space to try out their own ideas, but he also checked up on everything everyone did.

Similarly, you want to find a positive personal paradox. Mr. Fletcher and Ms. Olwyler suggest listing your personal qualities and characteristics – at least 20 – such as the types of actions you like to take, roles you like to play and words that might be used to describe you. Then combine those into paradoxical pairs using oxymorons. For example, in one workshop, they unearthed these from participants:

  • Attack sheep
     
  • Lazy do-it-all
     
  • Spontaneous planner
     
  • Ruthless helper
     
  • Creative imitator
     
  • Passionate robot
     
  • Hesitant risk-taker
     
  • Velvet jackhammer
     
  • Insecure tower of strength
     
  • Ambitious slowpoke

Look for combination of words on your list that are already opposites. You may, however, have to invent a phrase to describe yourself. They note that names of animals can be helpful – shy and timid making you a mouse, powerful and fearless turning you lion-hearted.

You'll probably be uncomfortable with some of the characteristics you have named and thus one half of your oxymoron may make you quiver – not quite your self-image. "If one side of your core personality paradox seems like a limitation, you probably have felt for much of your life that you 'shouldn't' act that way or you would be 'better off' if you were different. It is likely that you have tried to suppress or eliminate that quality of your personality. Yet this is not the direction to go," they say.

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Instead they recommend a perception-shifting exploration. You need to list the positives and negatives of the preferred and disliked sides. From those, you develop a high-performance oxymoron, combining the best, and a negative oxymoron, combining the negatives.

In an example in the book, a woman defines herself as a "self-doubting overachiever," liking the overachiever but disliking the self-doubting element. However, when she completes the self-examination, her high-performance oxymoron is quite helpful: "Thoroughly prepared expectation exceeder." The nightmare scenario, though, is when she becomes a "hopeless wheel spinner."

It's a useful path, although I doubt Mr. Gates or Mr. Walton did any such exercise. They were who they were, or the best part of their contradictory selves. But I think something is being missed at an earlier stage, which has its own power. As a gentle tiger, I easily forgot I was a tiger. So I lived in the realm of gentle in my mind, while biting people, and they bit back. So I think you have to keep in front of you the negative or less-liked element of your personality, while not letting it flummox you. That approach seems better than simply listing strengths and weaknesses, and vowing to do something vague about weaknesses. It allows you to step back and think of the contradictions within, which may be driving you and others to distraction.

Cannonballs

  • Here’s more, eight paradoxical habits of wildly successful people, identified by psychologist Travis Bradberry: Polite, yet completely unafraid to rock the boat; deeply passionate, yet rational and objective about their work; convergent and divergent thinkers; both energetic and calm; like to work and play; ambiverts – both extroverts and introverts; naive and smart; humble and proud.
     
  • If people and organizations can be paradoxical, why not generations? Social researcher Michael Adams, in Sex in the Snow, showed how they vary in values, depending on how traditional and modern, or social and individual they are. We routinely talk of generations as if all are the same, but a paradoxical lens may be more accurate.
     
  • Recent research suggests that productivity goes up when managers aren’t watching. When they are watching workers closely, they get a show, exactly by the book, which may not be the most productive way.
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