At present we are experiencing, seemingly exogenous [i], caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions. All types of organizations and its leadership have been and are forced to adapt and to make new sense. Organisation and its members needed to respond tensions between distance and closeness, health and profit, individual and collective welfare, and many more.
One way is to look at these recent developments is to take a paradoxa-oriented perspective. Unpacking the pandemic experience through a paradoxical interpretation may reveal insights including those on organizational and leadership tensions, and ways of dealing with them. Because organizations are coalitions of multiple and often contradictory interests and interest groups or stakeholders, paradoxes are present in and around many organizational and management realms.
In general, paradoxicality seems to be an intrinsic part of human nature and is particularly prevailing in contemporary crisis-driven societies, cultures and organizations as well as leadership situations. With the implosion of meaning, ambiguities and complexities and a so-called ‘paradexity’ as convergence of paradox and complexity, human beings and their collective social formations and functional systems are increasingly confronted with challenging issues in multifarious and ambivalent forms.
Paradoxa become salient when the environment changes and when challenging times of crisis call for dealing with existing and new paradoxical situations. As uncertainty about the size scope and duration of the Paradoxa become salient when the environment changes and when challenging times of crisis call for dealing with existing and new paradoxical situations. As uncertainty about the size scope and duration of the pandemic, and the government’s capacity to deal and manage with the same has raised the saliency of paradoxical tensions organizations and leadership have been faced with the heightened urge to navigate. Some salient paradoxes during the pandemic crisis have been (see also Carmine et al. 2021, Pradies et al 2021).
- short-term versus long-term tensions
- economic versus social purpose/goals tensions
- exploiting existing versus exploring new forms of knowledge
- performing versus learning tensions
- individual privacy versus common good tensions
- need for agency versus active responsible doing less or ‘non-doing’
- disequilibrium of the work-family paradox
- freedom versus security paradox
Related to a classical tension between security versus its impacts there was the need for restrictions and prohibitions to keep the public safe, versus costs to economies and livelihoods. One extreme case was a Chinese business in Zambia that in order to keep a business going while “protecting” its employees, were accused of what was called a “forced quarantine,” barring workers from leaving their workplace. This “helping-by-enslaving” was the epitome of unintended consequences of (mis)managing the business-human life paradox (Pradies et al 2021,see Schad and Etter in Sharma et al., 2021). This case also shows that when paradoxes are decoupled and transferred across hierarchies what is paradoxical framing discursively at the top can be a pragmatic paradox at the bottom.
Before discussing ways of leadership in processing paradoxes, here first some basic understanding and then effects and ambivalence of paradoxa are addressed.
What are paradoxes?
In addition to the appearance of the paradoxes in the acute context of the pandemic crisis, the intensification of paradoxes has been observed already before. Among other factors, technological change, global competition and workforce diversities generated paradoxical situations. Seeing them as inevitable, endemic and perpetual, the more turbulent the times and the more complex the world, the more paradoxes seem to emerge. However, to say, ‘It’s a paradox’, has become cliché of our time that is often overused and underspecified.
Formulating a paradox is a way to describe all kinds of conflicting demands, opposing perspectives or seemingly illogical findings. Similar to dilemmas, they can cause paralysis in decision making and action, but, ambivalently, they also can be used for ‘re-energizing’. But what are paradoxes in the first place?
Generally, paradoxes are accounts and experiences that violate the usually assumed dichotomy of statements into right and wrong or true and false. If we are tentatively thinking one dimension of them as true, then it immediately backfires on us and makes us think it is false. This backfiring can happen, for example, by disconfirmations or negations that are producing a self-renunciation. But once we have decided it is false, a similar backfiring returns us then to the idea that it must be true. As long as we remain locked within this system of mutually exclusive truths and falsehoods, paradox catches us in a kind of maze. Thus, a paradox is a statement or group of statements that is based on or leads to the equivocality of multiple and conflicting interpretations.
Importantly, paradox requires and comprises a contradiction, being contrary toconventional thinking or practice. Already according to its Greek meaning, para~doxon ‘para-’ (= against) and ‘doxa’ (= opinion, doctrine, expectation) [ii] it contains a contradictory element.
Contradictions are dialectically formed when dynamic forces that are interdependent (unity) mutually negate one another (negation) and impact its further unfolding. In this way, they are a diction or an expressed articulation of contrary interplaying energies. As a few of their functions, contradictions introduce difference, negativity or otherness. Thus, one important quality that is mediated by contradictions is their power to negate and hence allows something different and other to appear. [iii] Accordingly, one essential characteristic of paradox is the simultaneous presence of contradictory, even mutually exclusive elements that operate equally at the same time. Contradictions in a paradox manifest specifically when two or more options or alternatives are simultaneously valid. Thus and different to other similar concepts like ambivalence or dilemmas [iv] paradoxes are distinct, but may also lead to self-refuting statements and performative contradictions [v]. Paradoxes are operating concurrently and effectively, while for contradictory elements there seems to be no reconciling synthesis possible.
In addition to expressing a contradiction, paradoxes are characterized by self-reference and a vicious circularity or infinite regress, such as in an endless hall of mirrors.[vi] This self-referential, self-contradictory and infinitely circular character may irritate rational decision making and clear purpose-driven actions. But it also provides disclosures of specific interdependencies. Thus, paradox denotes contradictory yet interrelated elements. These elements that seem logical in isolation are absurd and irrational when appearing simultaneously. As they are following a kind of nonlinear logic and as they put new twists on the familiar, paradoxes generate surprises and inquiries. In this way, paradoxes prompt explorations of whether conditions that are inferred are actually true. Thus, they are sparking further inquiries and the questioning of assumptions and recognition of ambiguities. This sparking then may lead to rethinking and reconsidering the phenomena in their real interwoven complexities at hand.
Often two or more elements or positions appear or a recognitively and socially constructed as polarities that mask interrelatedness and a simultaneity of conflicting truths in various contexts of organization and leadership (Lewis, 2000).[vii]
It is because ‘paradoxing’ is poised between opposites that allow paradoxical thinking to potentially generate some positive effects as they open up new possibilities, breath through mental walls or drop into emotional cracks, as well as may pull the rug out from under false preconceptions. However, it is only through awak(en)ing of the systemic interconnections and daring to embark on a radical reflection that new panoramas and unexplored passageways are discovered. Then creative ways for dealing with potentials can be found, which is particularly relevant for contemporary organizations and their management. Creative responses are important also due to the effects but also potentials of paradoxes.
Effects and potentials of paradoxes
Comparable to dilemmas, paradoxes have various ambivalent effects and implications. Often, a paradox is an experience that involves incompatible feelings, thoughts or propositions that appear as equally valid and true, which leads to dissonances: What the body-mind seemingly cannot feel or think it must.
Negatively, paradoxes can provoke one-sided orientations, distortions of perception, non-intended consequences and self-paradoxical side-effects. Being exposed to unsolvable paradoxes may cause paralysing decision making and action.
Positively, paradoxes allow a creative tension, which by activating potentials generates novel and innovative ideas and practices. Paradoxes can be productive irritations that help us to overcome tendencies to reduce processes conceptually in response to polarized states – for example, when taken-for-granted conceptual distinctions are used, as it is very common in our time.
While juxtaposing opposites help people to realize the inherent tensions the question remains: How can practice be informed when choices have to be made, decisions found and sense of action needed, while also understanding that organizations are ongoing realities and processes of paradoxical relating and the role of leadership in this?
Dealing with paradoxes
Although true paradoxes are unsolvable and do not lead themselves to dialectical synthesis, exploring them is useful in that they provide temporary responses or provisional solutions.
Lewis (2000) differentiated between three forms to engage with paradoxes: acceptance, confrontation and transcendence.
On an individual level, accepting paradoxes and learning to live and deal with paradoxes, even becoming a paradoxical self, offer a sense of freedom.
Based on an enhanced awareness, this acceptance can be explored by detaching from what cannot be resolved and what in turn aids self-awareness and an understanding of the future management role. According to Lewis, acceptance ‘might open Pandora’s box and spark vicious cycles, and “play through” paradox by focusing on their intense tasks’ (2000: 764).
Confronting paradox involves identifying and discussing underlying logic or assumptions by which actors may subject their ways of thinking to critique, which helps escape paralysis. Such confrontation requires detailed discussion of actual tensions in order to accommodate understanding. Interestingly, humour may be used as a low-risk means of confrontation.
Via second-order thinking transcending paradoxes helps our reframing assumptions, learning from existing tensions and developing a more complicated repertoire of understandings and behaviours that better reflect organizational intricacies. By investigating entrenched assumptions and changing the meaning attributed to a situation allows perceiving paradoxical tensions and contradictions to be recognized as complementary and interwoven.
‘and/and’ or ‘both/and’ ‘best of both worlds’
Paradoxical reasoning and acting can take the form of ‘and/and’ or ‘both/and’ orientation when two seemingly contradictory, or even mutually exclusive, factors appear to be true at the same time. As opposed to ‘either/or’ thinking, this inclusive orientation sees one factor as true and simultaneously the other contradictory factor as true, too. Under resource-rich conditions the response could be to do both things as much as possible at the same time with the intention of reaping the ‘best of both worlds’.
However, in resource-constrained environments, mostly the response is to go for a trade-off or a compromise. Depending on the situation and resources available, there will be a mix between strategies aiming for ‘best of both worlds’ and trade-offs for different issues concerning the given or aspired venture.
A ‘through/through’ or parallel thinking synthesizes seemingly opposed values or positions and claims into coherence. This process involves sub-processes of bridging or integrating the gulf of paradoxes.
Competing representations of paradox can be held in conjunction by transcending conceptual limitations (Eisenhardt, 2000; Poole and Van de Ven, 1989). Barrett (1997) sees this as a combination of ‘Janusian thinking’, which identifies opposites, reconciles and ingeniously juxtaposes them to produce innovative new combinations. Such an approach integrates opposites so intimately that the distinctions between them vanish in a burst of new discoveries.
Janus need to move his head [viii]
Paradoxes need not be solved to be adaptive and to be dealt with. Resolving all simultaneous contradictions may even inhibit excellence by eliminating the creative tension that paradoxes produce. Instead of solving, removing or denying paradoxes, chiasmic organization and leadership are holding paradoxes open and working or playing with or through them transformationally. In this way, the existence of paradox can be interpreted as more like an invitation to take part in a game in which serious playfulness encourages the actor to engage fully with the sensorial, emotional and intellectual dimensions of paradoxical experience.
Understanding paradoxes requires seeing how dynamic and self-organizing patterns of meaning emerge in the actions of people, in the fluid relations and embodied as well as emotional interactions that are continually forming and transforming, thus evolving and emerging.
It is the very dynamics of organizational and leadership life that calls for complex responsive processes of relating, to live effectively in and with the paradox of organizing. Correspondingly, paradoxes are not to be resolved or collapsed but are to be rearranged and lived with and through so that new patterns of meaning might move organizations and its members forward into new creative possibilities.
This practice is all about changing the ways in which practitioners perceive, feel and think as well as converse and narrate about paradoxes as well as how they act and are living their lives differently. [ix]
Many creative processes of scientific and artistic persons and endeavours are transcending ordinary logic and antithetical elements for developing more integrated forms of creations. This transcending confirms the role of emotions and aesthetics in problem finding and solving or in the Many creative processes of scientific and artistic persons and endeavours are transcending ordinary logic and antithetical elements for developing more integrated forms of creations. This transcending confirms the role of emotions and aesthetics in problem finding and solving or in the verification of creative outcomes also in relation to paradoxes. Such an emotional and aesthetic approach is relevant also in domains outside the arts, which has far-reaching implications for creativity education, realised at Karlshochschule.
Localising / Provisory ‘synthesis’ / improvisation / meta-flexibility
Based on a positive regard for the actual and concrete co-presence of opposites, the relationship between supposed poles of most paradoxes can be seen as a local one, in the sense that they cannot be designed generically because they emerge from situated and circumscribed practices.
In order to deal with paradoxes as an ongoing processing, it is important to acknowledge that there exists specific oppositional politics and practices of paradox that are already present within organizational and management discourse and realities. Choosing and finding a (selective) balance between two extremes of a paradox or replacing the tension between the two with a provisory ‘synthesis’ helps managers to push important dynamics out of the realm of attention or redirects them in specific perspectives. Therefore, we need a kind of permanent dialectic approach towards organization and strategy wherein opposites are seen and dealt with simultaneously.
Paradoxes prevail for practical reasons such as when holding the poles of paradoxes apart to prevent organizations falling into a simplicity trap, as a destination that almost inevitably results from choices, compromises or syntheses between poles.
In this way, paradoxes lead to a fertile processing of complexity and prevent implementing assumed panacea or simplistic solutions. As political fields of power, an organization’s fight for distinction and domination often produce contradictory views of its future that coexist in a single entity.
Enacted and mediated for example by improvisation with the poles in a planning/acting paradox holding paradox intact, that is, bringing planning and action together relationally without replacing neither. Therefore improvisation understood as a synthesizing practice may be the most suitable response for dealing with paradox or in paradoxical situations. Interestingly, organization with established routines can be more improvisational as and for enacting unfolding actions. Importantly, improvisation implies a chiasmic movement as embodied practice osciliating between and within paradoxes (Kuepers 2015).
Even more, paradox is an enacted competence and in turn competence is paradox, especially in the context of change and transformation, calling for being or becoming very flexible.
One form for processing paradoxical situations is creating conditions for meta-flexibility. Flexibility is the degree to which an organization has a variety of managerial capabilities and the speed at which they can be activated to increase the control capacity of management and improve the controllability of the organization. Based on this understanding meta-flexibility then can be defined as the ability to processes paradoxes, especially between organization design tasks in relation to technology structure, culture and managerial tasks and a changing competitive force with the need for changing organizational forms.
Managing paradox does not imply conclusive resolutions, final reconcilement or the elimination of the paradox, but instead implies tapping into its energizing and creative potential. And an effective management leverages paradox in creative ways that captures both poles, directions or extremes. To appreciate paradoxical tensions can then stimulate, guide and advance a more encompassing integration of realities.
As contradiction is the home of creativity paradox forces people to ‘think twice’ about that which is taken-for-granted. This implies that considering paradox allows a reaching beyond the current governing assumptions and ideologies, thus achieving more dynamically integrated perspectives on organization and strategic management (Lado et al., 2006).
Facing leadership paradoxes for the Post-Pandemic, Paul Leinwand, et al. (2021) call for humble heroes, who acknowledge what they don’t know are willing to learn from others who may have less leadership tenure, but more relevant insights. Furthermore these are serving as high-integrity politician who need to be inclusive and listeners to understand new ways of doing things and relating to people, being responsive to customers and stakeholders and being a globally-minded localist. Tellingly his latest book on how leaders transform their organizations and shape the future if called “Beyond Digital’ (Leinwand, 2021). Importantly, he decisions made during a crisis period like that of a pandemic also set a tone for what is to happen following afterwards and other similar crises. One lessons and proactive orientation of this crisis is that it is wise that leading decision-makers can minimize long-term unintended consequences of short-term decisions by creating a generative space for negotiation and a shared sense of purpose as was done in New Zealand (Wilson, 2020) as well as enhancing resilience.
The pandemic has confirmed that managing a paradox is very challenging. With multiple demands and tasks intensifying, and actors are expected thus forced to respond and accommodate all to all of them simultaneously sometimes without access to needed resources and outdated mindset of coping or self-inflicted bad luck has demonstrated the complexities involved. What a chance for learning!
Considering the suffering the crisis also called for compassion and empathy, including when dealing with paradoxes, making as expressed in the wisdom of the African Ubuntu of humanitude that each of us is because the others are and thus we together (Gaim & Clegg, 2020).
Will human kind and leaders learn that common or community’s good can only be generated by an unconditional recognition and appreciation of individual uniqueness and differences that are all part of an interconnected web including the other-/more than human beings?
Preparing for possible future pandemics one important quest and question will be how to become a local, regional differentiated yet world society where health and immunity of the one is no longer achieved before or worse at the expense of the other, hence where the relation between selves and others needs to be reconfigured and convivial immanence and immunities (co-immunities)enabled!
Article by Prof. Dr. Wendelin Küpers, Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies and Head of Degree Program of the new master course Social TransFormation – Politics, Philosophy & Economics
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[i] Actually this exogenous appearing problem is also “internally” coproduced by unsustainable practices and systems of human and the Anthropocene (Küpers, 2020).
[ii] Paradox comes from the Greek words ‘para’ meaning ‘beyond’ and ‘doxa’ meaning ‘opinion’. The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it as ‘a situation or statement, which seems impossible or is difficult to understand because it contains two opposite facts or characteristics.’ ‘“Paradox” = 1 statement or tenet contrary to received opinion or belief, esp. one that is incredible, absurd or fantastic. 2a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated or explained may prove to be well-founded or true. 2b proposition or statement that is actually self-contradictory, absurd, or false, paralogy, impaired power of reasoning or logical thinking’.(The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993: 2093, 2095).
[iii] In contrast a purely positive mono-valent concept of reality – as if no contradictions existed – would rob what is there as real of its potential for change. All contradiction-based changes are events of an ‘othering’ of things or phenomena; they become other as compared to the way they presently are understood. And they are not something that is external but rather intrinsic to them as finite things. The other may take form of an absence or what is presently missing from ‘something’ (desire). However, only when contradictions are ‘genuine’ in a sense of an empirical embodied incompatibility and if they induce strong forces to move and system real change or transformation of individual and social conditions are likely to take place (Küpers, 2011c).
[iv] Paradoxes differ in nature from other similar concepts that are often used as synonyms, such as inconsistency, dialectic, ambivalence or conflict, irony and dilemma. An inconsistency is merely an aberration or discontinuity from past patterns. Dialectics refers to a patterning, which always begins with a thesis followed by an antithesis and is resolved by a synthesis. Ambi-valence is uncertainty over which of two or more attractive or unattractive alternatives should be ‘valenced’ and thus chosen. The characteristic of a conflict is the perpetuation of one alternative or interest in tension or existing at the expense of others. An irony exists when an unexpected or contradictory outcome arises from a single alternative. Finally, a dilemma is an either-or-situation – for example, where one alternative must be but cannot be selected over other attractive alternatives, as discussed before. In contrast to dilemma, there is not bipolarity; the indecidability of paradox is not between options – like in a dilemma – but about the truth of statements. For example, unrealistic or unfeasible orders for action or absolutizing partial truths generate paradoxically the opposite way of that which has been aspired to. Unlike dilemmas, or either/or choices, paradoxical tensions signify not two horns of a dilemmatic choice but two sides or perspectives of the samecoin – the various faces of one Janus or of an unbroken Mobius surface.
[v] A performative contradiction arises when the propositional content of a statement contradicts the non-contingent presuppositions that make possible the performance of the speech act. Such occurs, for example, with a statement that ‘all statements must be false’ where the speaker performs the action of stating something that contradicts the truthfulness of the speech act. The statement ‘hierarchies do not exist’ offers a more subtle example of performative contradiction, referring to the very capacity of making a statement because the statement itself is a hierarchy of semiotic relations of letters (as symbols) formed into words (as signifiers) formed into a sentence (as a statement).
[vi] Proof of a proposition by reference to the proposition itself that one wants to prove Cretans are always liars, said the Cretan, is contradictory because the Cretan is saying that Cretans are liars; all Cretans are liars, said the Cretan, is self-referential because the Cretan describes all Cretans; so if all Cretans are liars, and the Cretan told us so, then it cannot be true, but if it is not true that ALL Cretans are liars, then SOME Cretan must be a liar, and if there is only one Cretan, the statement stands, but then it is true that all Cretans are liars, so it must be a lie … and so on ad infinitum. This is not necessarily a paradox: If there exists a Cretan other than the Cretan making the claim, and this Cretan is not a liar, then the Cretan making the claim is a liar: He is saying that ALL Cretans are liars when there is in fact a Cretan who is not.
[vii] Are paradoxes real or and constructed? Are they inherent to the nature of the phenomenon in the way Eisenhardt’s (2000: 703) defined paradox as the ‘simultaneous existence of two inconsistent states … [a] duality of coexisting tensions.’ Or are paradox means of representation of a phenomenon, ‘constructed by individuals when oppositional tendencies or ambiguities are brought into recognizable proximity through reflection or interaction’ (Ford and Backoff, 1988: 89, Poole and Van de Ven, 1989; Dunford and Palmer, 1998)?
[viii] Based on acceptance of the chasm of the paradox and seeing emotion as an integral part of the paradox, Mostovicz et al. (2008) have developed what they call Janusian attitudinal mapping. This kind of mapping is ‘the capacity to conceive and to utilize two or more contradictory concepts, ideas or images simultaneously’ (Rothenberg, 1979: 195). This Janusian approach helps people to realize that in addition to their preferred pole, another possibility arises, in which positive and negative attitudinal elements are inherent (Rothenberg, 1996), that is, placing paradox in its proper position. This process can be facilitated by the help of an empathic negotiator. She might help to change the ‘language’ and render the subjectivity of positions, individual or group preferences and attitudes as open to be reinterpreted and its problems mapped. This reinterpretation and rearrangement may then open spaces for other options that can be explored further.
As conditions for successful ‘Attitudinal Janusian Mapping’ and to cope with learning paradoxes, Mostovicz et al. (2008: 223) describe in their case study of a group of retailers specific elements that are involved that are necessary for advancing and fostering knowledge, elements such as shock, open communication, experimentation and paradox leadership (Lewis, 2000).
[ix] Paradoxes can be related to emplotment and narrative identity as developed in the philosophy of Ricouer. In art there is a ‘fusion of the paradoxical and the causal sequence, of surprise and necessity’ (Ricoeur, 1984). For Ricoeur emplotment is ‘concordant discordance’, which constitutes the mediating function of the plot (1984: 66). By mediating between the two poles of events (reality) and stories (art, narrative), emplotment brings to the paradox (reality) a solution that is the poetic act itself … the story’s capacity to be followed. To follow a story is to move forward … under the guidance of an expectation that finds it fulfilment in the ‘conclusion’ of the story’ (1984: 66–67). Thus, emplotment serves to integrate diverse, discontinuous, unstable events with permanence-in-time. In many occupational passages and professional role transitions, people experience some kind of identity ambiguity (Corley and Gioia, 2004) and identity dynamics or processes of narrative identity (Ashforth, 2001; Trice and Morand, 1989). This experience, in turn, requires an effective narrative identity-work to sustain feelings of authenticity and need to match the person’s narrative repertoire. This matching is realized in a way that its various components eventually coalesce around the new self-understandings that result from the transition (Ibarra, 2003; Ibarra and Barbulescu, 2010): ‘Stories help people articulate provisional selves, link the past and the future into a harmonious, continuous sense of self, and enlist others to lend social reality to the desired changes’ (Ibarra and Barbulescu, 2010: 138). In this way, narratives are media, which serve to build ‘transition bridges’ (Ashforth, 2001) for crossing the gaps between old and new identities and roles may they be claiming or granted in transition-related social interactions. Such an orientation provides a passageway for the interplay between these day-to-day negotiations and the accumulated understandings of a whole life’s experiences (Ibarra and Barbulescu, 2010: 149). Narratives not only facilitate rupture, but allow people to drive their story’s action prospectively towards possible but tentative selves and worlds. The idea that mid-transition narratives will tend to be more provisional and less consistent with other repertoire stories than those constructed post hoc, when the narrator knows the end point of the story (Bartel and Garud, 2009; Weick, 1995), sheds light on the state of uncertain identity in which people mid-transition re port feeling ‘in a vacuum’, ‘in midair’, ‘neither here nor there’, and ‘at loose ends’ (Ebaugh, 1988; Ibarra, 2003). Uncertainty is resolved and the transition completed not when an actual role change occurs, but when a person is finally able to include the conflicts and contradictions in his or her narrative repertoire. Identity change consists of enduring amendments and of profound amendments to one’s narrative repertoire, consisting of established and provisional stories, story fragments and institutional scripts from which people draw to make narrative identity claims in social interactions, and which evolve as the transition process unfolds (Ibarra and Barbulescu, 2010: 149). How do we acknowledge the significance of those marginalized analogues and tropes in organizations that privilege dissimilarity or discordant similarity like anomaly, paradox and irony? This question seems to be particularly challenging because they are operating from within the cognitive discomfort zone and because they provide the basis of generative, transformative and frame-breaking insights and knowledge generation. As divergent forms of analogical reasoning permit the coexistence of multiple perspectives, they not only promote pluri-vocality but may help to create new theories (Oswick et al., 2002).