Both/And Thinking; Embracing Creative Tensions with Wendy Smith

Both/And Thinking; Embracing Creative Tensions with Wendy Smith

Family or career? Mountains or the seaside? City living or the suburbs?

If you’ve ever felt pulled in two seemingly opposite directions or faced a tough dilemma, you know that it can feel like you are being forced to make an impossible choice, one that will inevitably make someone unhappy.

Our work lives are full of dilemmas, too:

Culture fit or culture add? Employees-first or customer-first? Innovation or efficiency? Self-managed teams or traditional hierarchy?

“Paradoxes lurk beneath each of our dilemmas”

But our guest this week, Wendy Smith, says that we’ve got it all wrong. We don’t have to choose. In fact, our “either/or” thinking is a cognitive error that significantly limits our possibilities. Her research indicates that more often than not, two competing demands are both important and can inform and support one another rather than competing for our attention.

This is particularly true and relevant when it comes to company culture. There are common and fundamental tensions we often see at work – for example, between results vs relationships or risks vs rules. Choosing one of these competing values may lead to one of the deadly sins of company culture: toxicity, mediocracy, bureaucracy, or anarchy.

Episode Highlights

Here are some of the topics we cover and questions we answer in our conversation with Wendy:

  • The difference between a dilemma, a paradox, and a tension.
  • Why it’s important to reflect on the tensions hiding underneath a dilemma before coming to a decision.
  • How organisations can better meet their needs through catering to the individual needs of their employees and cultivating a stronger sense of belonging?
  • The paradoxes we are faced with when designing an effective hybrid model for our companies.
  • The importance of building guardrail roles within an organization to ensure that you don’t lean too heavily into one side of a tension.
  • How can leaders empower the people who have less of a voice to make sure that they are heard and included?
  • How can leaders help employees embrace the “both/and” mindset?
  • Being “consistently inconsistent” – how does it work and why is it important why try to balance tensions?

Listen to the interview in the player below or on iTunes. If you like what you hear, please leave a review, and it may be featured on a future episode.

More about Wendy Smith

Wendy Smith earned her Ph.D. in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, and is currently a professor of management at the Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics and Co-director of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the University of Delaware.

Wendy’s research focuses on strategic paradoxes – how leaders and senior teams effectively respond to contradictory agendas. She studies how organizations and their leaders simultaneously explore new possibilities while exploiting existing competencies, and how social enterprises simultaneously attend to social missions and financial goals. Her research has been published in journals such as Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Administrative Science Quarterly, Harvard Business Review, Organization Science and Management Science. In 2018, she won the University of Delaware’s first Mid-Career Excellence in Scholarship Award. In 2015, she won the Lerner College Outstanding Scholar Award.

Wendy teaches leadership, organizational behavior and business ethics. She has taught MBAs and undergraduates at University of Delaware, Harvard and University of Pennsylvania – Wharton. Wendy was awarded the University of Delaware MBA Teaching Award in 2016. Wendy has also taught executive and senior leadership teams how to manage interpersonal dynamics, emotional intelligence, high performing teams, organizational change and innovation, managing in times of crisis, and managing strategic paradoxes.

You can contact Professor Wendy Smith:

on Linkedin

on Twitter @profwendysmith

or send her an e-mail at

Books mentioned in this episode

Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems book by Wendy K. Smith and Marianne W. Lewis

Teaming book by Amy Edmondson

The Person You Mean to Be book by Dolly Chugh

People mentioned in this episode

Professor Richard Hackman

Economist Milton Friedman

Sociologist Mary Parker Follett

Former Lead at Google X Tom Chi

Additional resources

CultureBrained® Community – a one-of-a-kind virtual community for Heads of Culture, founders, and leaders who want to up their culture game.

The Culture Playbook Guide

Discover Your Personal Values

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