In an increasingly volatile business climate, there are no ‘easy’ answers for organisations looking to develop and grow.

HR – probably more than any other profession – often finds itself stuck in the middle, having to manage the inevitable tensions that arise between organisations, stakeholders and employees.

In his latest book, Victory through Organisation, HR guru Dave Ulrich suggests that one of the key skills for HR going forward is the ability to manage the many paradoxes that present themselves on a daily basis. “They have to help the business be both short and long-term, top-down and bottom-up, global and local, divergent and convergent, strategic and operational,” he says.

One of the most interesting findings from Ulrich’s ongoing global study of the profession (32,000 respondents in 1,200 businesses), is that this ‘paradox navigator’ competency – more than any other emerging HR skill – is shown to have the biggest impact on bottom line performance.

He suggests this is partly because of the ‘and/also’ type of thinking it encourages. “Navigating paradox accepts and heightens disagreements that enable organisations to change and evolve,” he says. “Without the tensions that come from paradoxical thinking and debates, organisations perpetuate the status quo and do not respond to change.”

This all sounds very familiar to HR people, who have always spent much of their time trying to strike the right balance been organisation and employee needs. It’s basically a new name for an age-old set of problems:

  • A proposed merger between two departments makes sound business sense but will result in redundancies and have a corresponding impact on employee engagement.
  • A valued employee in a critical operational role has been on long-term sick and much as the business wants to support them, it’s becoming apparent that their absence is having a real impact on customer service.
  • The introduction of a new HR software system will clearly save the business time and money – but will fundamentally alter the nature of some employee’s roles, in a way they won’t welcome.

The list of scenarios that HR has to negotiate goes on … with professionals often finding themselves bottom of the popularity stakes as a result.

Ulrich claims that the ability to navigate paradox successfully is not innate — although it may come more naturally to some. Rather, it calls for a specific skill-set which can be learned and developed.

The full list of 10 must-have skills is outlined in Ulrich’s new book, the first chapter of which you can find on the Internet to download for free. A few of the core competencies are outlined below to give you a taste.

So, how well do you match up with these skills – and what can you do to develop them?

1. Deal with cognitive complexity:

Are you able to see different sides of an issue and respect someone else’s point of view? Try getting some feedback from colleagues on how open they find you to new concepts and ideas and read up on critical thinking skills.

2. Be socially endearing:

It’s a fact of life that HR generally isn’t high on people’s Christmas list. Ulrich suggests practitioners need to develop the ability to disagree without being disagreeable and to find ways of allowing for tension without contention. High-level influencing skills are your friend here. Face-to-face training is probably the best way to practice in a safe environment, but if that’s not an option, there are some excellent books on the market.

3. Be socially connected:

It’s vital for practitioners to get out of their HR bubble and find out what is really happening on the frontline. Make an effort to ‘walk the floor’, spending time with managers and employees from across the business and getting to really understand the challenges they face.

Developing an external perspective is important, too. Find out what’s happening in your industry and make sure you know what challenges are likely to face the business in the short and longer term future.

4. Embrace diversity of thought:

Ulrich suggests avoiding ‘group think’ is key to developing the ability to navigate paradox successfully. Actively seek out people whose background and opinions are different to yours. Find people who are experts in areas of importance to your organisation and listen to their advice.

5. Have a growth mindset:

Get out of your comfort zone and try new things. Embrace risk and see failure as an opportunity to learn. Build up your resilience so that you can bounce back and beyond when things don’t go according to plan.


Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.