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How does paradoxical leadership facilitate knowledge sharing in professional-diverse teams?

1. Introduction

People always focus on knowledge holders’ willingness whether they choose to share their knowledge or hide it. However, knowledge sharing or hiding behavior may be a passive choice when knowledge accepters reject knowledge sharing because of a lack of sufficient understanding and resonance between the parties. This is reflected in the inefficiency of many current diverse professional teams, which may face the paradox between knowledge diversity and integration.

This article aims to analyze how paradoxical leadership, based on traditional Chinese dialectical thinking, can reduce barriers caused by a lack of resonance. By establishing a shared mindset model, it facilitates the smoother exchange and sharing of knowledge among team members.

2. Knowledge sharing challenges in professional-diverse teams

As the business environment becomes more and more complex and the interdependence of tasks increases, many companies choose to recruit employees with different functional and professional backgrounds to form teams to promote innovation1. For example, in internet companies, cross-functional teams comprising members from technical, product, operations, and marketing departments are needed to collaboratively drive projects. And with the development of globalization, companies face increasing problems related to international cooperation. In a professional-diverse team, different knowledge, experience, and backgrounds provide non-overlapping insights. People can explore the connections of knowledge on this foundation to create new knowledge. However, the premise is that people can understand each other rather than conflict because of fragmented knowledge and lack of a common foundation. This is a challenging paradox that needs to be dealt with.

Davenport and Prusak pointed out2 that trade barriers are one of the main pathologies causing the failure of the knowledge market. People always focus on one aspect of the barrier, where employees intentionally hide or hoard knowledge, leading to knowledge monopolies, and preventing knowledge from reaching where it is needed. However, on the other hand, the unwillingness to accept knowledge also hinders knowledge sharing and transfer, resulting in the localness of knowledge. The root cause of this problem is a lack of understanding and resonance between people which is also the base to building trust.

In a knowledge-diverse team, professionals always express ideas based on their expertise and perspectives. Senior employees may insist on their experience, while younger employees are likely to take more radical actions. Expatriates and local employees may have barriers because of different identities. Cognitive conflicts trap us into fragmented worlds separated by identities, status, and power, which forms a huge block to knowledge sharing. Therefore, before achieving extensive knowledge sharing, we need some necessary knowledge redundancy to bridge the cognitive gap between team members and construct the communication foundation. This requires our mindset and ability to deal with paradoxes and conflicts.

3. What is paradox and paradoxical leadership?

“Paradox” refers to the elements that are mutually contradictory yet interconnected which compose our more and more complex, uncertain, and changing world. This perceived disorder presents as cognitive polarization, resulting in localized tension and conflict. For instance, the phenomena of group polarization are reflected in events like Brexit in the UK or elections in the United States, as well as interpersonal conflicts in the workplace. According to3 the Harvard Business Review, “In the UK, approximately 38% of employees experience interpersonal conflicts each year, and in the United States, conflicts can occupy as much as 40% of a manager’s time.”

Lewis inceptively introduced4 Chinese Yin-Yang philosophical ideas into managing paradoxes. Western philosophy often emphasizes breaking down appearances into increasingly smaller fragments for study, which may result in a binary thinking model—either this or that. However, eastern philosophy focuses on the interdependence and mutual transformation of contradictory elements, forming a dynamically changing and harmonious whole. The Tai Chi diagram is a concrete manifestation of this philosophy. One of the core feathers of paradoxical leadership is that the team leader can develop and apply this paradox framework to perceive the tension within the team and resolve conflicts through inclusivity, integration, and transcending. They can also enable team members to critically examine differences in ideas and develop more complicated mindsets and behavior styles.

4. How can paradoxical leadership promote knowledge sharing in teams

Paradoxical leadership can foster team reflection and establish a shared mental model to facilitate smoother knowledge sharing within the team.

Reflection5 is to contemplate the relationship between oneself and the surrounding environment in a dialectical manner. Team reflection6 means that members can go back from busy work to reflect on previous actions and thoughts, discuss about team’s goals publicly, and advance subsequent tasks. Paradoxical leadership provides a beneficial disruption. Firstly, a leader with a paradoxical mindset can incorporate and integrate different perspectives. secondly, he can break through individual employees’ inherent biases, encouraging them to critically reflect on the potential hypotheses behind their ideas and dialectically consider opposing viewpoints. Finally, from a higher level, leaders can guide employees7 to focus on the team’s common goals and adopt a team perspective to consider the whole.

Based on public reflection and discussion, paradoxical leadership is able to establish a shared mental model within the team, which means we can coordinate our actions seamlessly without much communication. Firstly, we can achieve common attitudes/beliefs. For example, with the guidance of team goals, younger employees leverage their youthful thinking to create innovative ideas, while senior employees use their experience to control risks in the process without a doubt whether it intentionally challenges them. Secondly, with frequent interaction, we can be familiar with preferences, advantages, shortcomings, and the distribution of knowledge within the team, which can decrease misunderstanding and friction in communication and share knowledge more effectively. Lastly, on the foundation8 of common attitudes and respect for diversity, we can share task-specific knowledge and task-related knowledge better. More importantly, besides explicit knowledge, which is easier to transfer, the shared mental model enables us to share tacit knowledge that comes from one’s experience, including intuition, tricks, etc., and is hard to express in language. Sharing of implicit knowledge requires involvement in “soft conditions” such as interaction, willingness to collaborate, shared experiences, and understanding to facilitate effective communication. A shared mental model provides such a foundation, while frequent interaction serves as a pathway for transmission. For example, in basketball, the “blind” or “no-look” passes establish this foundation.

In conclusion, the beneficial disruption and shared mental model produced by paradoxical leadership are a must to create new knowledge9. With this guidance, employees can critically and dialectically think to break cognitive blocks. And building on sincerity, respecting differences, and resonant understanding, knowledge sharing can be enhanced.

5. Practices in team building

The basis of mutual understanding and shared mental model is frequent interaction and communication, but the guidance of a leader is necessary to control controversy and avoid conflict. We can facilitate reflection and resonance by some beneficial team exercises.

Firstly, as team coaches, leaders can lead teammates to think feasibility of opposing viewpoints to encourage dialectical thinking. Meanwhile, as a model, paradoxical leaders show how to consider the whole by using some tools such as SWOT10. Secondly, regularly hit the pause button on teamwork and conduct reflective workshops. Vashdi and colleagues point out11 that team learning is an iterative process of action and reflection. By reflecting last stage’s actions, we can learn from our experience and make timely adjustments to behave better. What’s more, communicate and reflect in informal meetings, such as team lunchtime. In a relaxed atmosphere, humor and irony, in a non-disruptive manner, are able to identify tensions existing in our work and team and inspire ideas. Finally, built on open and honest discussions and a foundation of long-term collaboration, we can establish an atmosphere of trust and a shared mental model that makes us more willing to share our knowledge while being open-minded and receptive to others’ ideas.

Article source: Adapted from How Does Paradoxical Leadership Facilitate Knowledge Sharing in Professional-Diverse Teams, prepared as part of the requirements for completion of course KM6304 Knowledge Management Strategies and Policies in the Nanyang Technological University Singapore Master of Science in Knowledge Management (KM).

Nanyang Technological University Singapore Master of Science in Knowledge Management (KM).
Header image source: iStock.


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  9. Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (2009). The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.
  10. Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0.
  11. Vashdi, D. R., Bamberger, P. A., & Erez, M. (2013). Can surgical teams ever learn? The role of coordination, complexity, and transitivity in action team learning. Academy of Management Journal, 56(4), 945-971.
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Yikai Zhang

I am a student in the knowledge management program at NTU and preparing for my PhD application. The research areas include leadership, team learning, knowledge management behaviors, and the impact of digital technology on the workplace.

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