Paradoxical Problem Solving - IEDP
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Paradoxical Problem Solving

The sort of tension so often faced by policy makers


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When in a speech last week, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said “Immigration benefits Britain, but it needs to be controlled,” he exemplified the sort of tension so often faced by policy makers around the world. In this case the tension between popular demands for lower immigration in conflict with business needs and the fundamental tenet of the EU’s Single Market – the ‘free movement of people.’

In a recent article in the Straits Times, David Chan, professor of psychology at the Singapore Management University(SMU), suggests ways, based on organizational psychology, to resolve such tensions creatively. He uses the Singaporean government’s recent policy of allowing people to withdraw part of their pension savings in a lump sum after they turn 65, as an example. Here policy tensions between meeting an individual’s short term desires and long-term interests (retirement needs in old age), led to accusations of government populism and irresponsibility.

As a further example he cites the controversial Ministry of Education Edusave Character Award, which gives cash awards to students with good character and values. This policy that rewards good behaviour financially, critics say, undermines the individual’s natural instinct to behave well in the first place, a criticism that is supported by scientific evidence. Incentive-based policies to influence behaviours are of course also common in a business context, and when applied appropriately can have powerful desired effects. But scientific research has shown that an over-reliance on financial incentives will lead to unintended negative effects.

Managing such policy tensions effectively is a critical skill both for politicians and for business leaders. So what help can organizational psychology offer? Organisational psychology introduces the concept of a paradoxical approach to problem solving, which can be defined as one that endorses two seemingly contradictory views at the same time, to deliver a solution that is aligned with both points of view.

Facing two seemingly opposing dimensions people see conflict and too often take entrenched positions from which solutions, if they come, invariably mean one side of the argument is left dissatisfied and often resentful. But according to Professor Chan conflict can be resolved by adopting a paradoxical approach that embraces the two seemingly opposing dimensions. “This can produce an outcome that is better than choosing one over the other. And when the policymaker does so, he can unlock creativity, or produce policy innovation.” he says.

The examples Chan cites show attempts to align public sentiment with other policy needs. This is also the case for David Cameron, where the economic benefits to the UK of the Single Market and the access ‘free movement’ gives to a willing migrant workforce is in conflict with public fears and the social strains excessive immigration is thought likely to create.

Professor Chan concludes “When tensions occur, it is important to recognise that not all difficult policy decisions involve zero-sum trade-offs. When a policy can embrace opposing views, the outcome can be more effective than a policy that chooses one view over another.”


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