by Marc Brunet - LACT research partner -

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Deployment of failed strategies, reorganizations and ineffective change management, increases in psychosocial problems are regularly reported in organizations. Increasingly, these problems are related to the existence of paradoxes in the company and in its management.

The perception of paradoxes can be paralyzing, can generate fears and fears, generate inaction or inappropriate actions and create limiting learning at the individual, team and/or organizational level. Individuals are affected (stress, burnout), company performance affected, strategies poorly deployed or aborted.  

The perception of the paradox can also be a source of organizational learning, creativity, positive changes by moving towards a position of the included third party.

Various studies show that it is not the existence of paradoxical tensions that generate difficulties, but the way in which they are perceived and managed (Guilmot, 2015). The systemic and strategic approach provides a framework for acting and understanding these phenomena (Brunet, 2015).



The position of the manager, the evaluation system, the corporate culture, the discourse on values ​​or the context define a meta-message which can be contradicted by the content of the message. This can create a paradoxical tension. For example goal setting, operational messages may conflict with a 'meta-discourse'. Take the case of a company in the hospitality industry. Management values ​​customer service in its speech. On the other hand, the individual objectives given to employees value the number of sales. They therefore receive two contradictory messages. The consequence was a decrease in customer and employee satisfaction, which had to be addressed by realigning different behaviors and communications.

Very often, the position of the manager defines a meta-message which can be contradicted by the speech of the manager.

The position of manager (evaluating performance, being himself evaluated on the performance of his team): The manager's speech:
No mistake be creative
Deliver results as soon as possible Think long term
Individual award think team
Respect the rules Be flexible and opportunistic

Table 1: examples of contradictory injunctions related to the position of the manager and his speech

It is the structure of the interactional dynamics that creates “the paradox”.

Paradox situations are interactional situations involving contradictory injunctions between two individuals, two entities, two organizations, and this in a certain context. The two 'entities' live an experience. It is the intersection between the information contained by the message as perceived and the way of living the experience that will generate opportunities or, on the contrary, problematic situations, even at psychosocial risk.

The relationship between the manager and his team also responds to this structure of the interactional dynamic. The difficulty is heightened when the manager himself is subject to possible pressure from his own managers. In what follows, we will focus on a model for understanding these dynamics that is used both for changes in managerial practices and for interventions in companies.

The PEARLsystem model (©Garcia, 2015) is the latest evolution of the model resulting from research by CIRCE (representative of the MRI of Palo Alto in France). It describes how a person is going to have an experience. Each experience is assessed from an interactional point of view. 5 'steps' are identified: Perception, Emotion, Action, Relationship, Lesson or Logic of the situation.

The table below summarizes the 5 stages of the PEARL experience.

Perception What does the person perceive? What does she see, what does she hear? Who is saying what to whom? Who does what ? Etc... A difference in the environment is perceived through sensory filters and filters learned from previous lessons. It creates a difference inside the person.

How does the person feel? 

In general a mix of 2 emotions among the 6 basic emotions (fear, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, pleasure) 

Neuro-sciences say that simultaneously with perception, emotion is born. 

Emotion (etymologically) is setting in motion.

Stock What does the person do? (micro or macro-movements, gestures, words, even complex strategies) Actions are both large communicative movements or small bodily changes that help influence a relationship.
Relationship Where are you in the relationship with your system, with your colleague, your manager, etc.? It is what happens in the interaction following the concomitant action of two or more individuals, which qualifies it and which will be a source of learning.



What does this change in the person's relationship to themselves, to others, to the world? What learning(s)? After a series of experiences, the 'L' becomes the set of L (lessons) resulting from the experiences and defines a new P->E->A->R->L. The latter is more fixed, we only perceive what we can confirm from the “lessons learned”.

To illustrate how to represent the experience of an employee through the PEARLsystem approach, let's take the case of an industrial company that designs and sells products with high technical added value. A manager within the Codir is in charge of the realization, the management of the project teams and therefore the result on the project. The main axis around which he will articulate his perceptions is 'I must ensure maximum security of project results'. Therefore any innovation or change is a threat in relation to this axis. The way he lives his experiences in the present is articulated around this notion of fear of change. His colleagues come to him with new customer requests. His perception (P) synthesized by 'request for change in the process that I manage' will automatically generate (E) a feeling of fear. He says to himself (L) 'we must remain stable to be effective', 'the last time we wanted to change this generated a loss of money', 'in any case we don't have the time', 'moreover I still have to take responsibility'. Fear (E) can also be linked to a feeling of insecurity in relation to one's own skills or those of one's teams and therefore about one's future. All the actions (A) that he will undertake will be to avoid any changes. He will argue against the proponents of an evolutionary line, become bad-tempered, ask his managed people to do more or faster to prove that he is right (L: 'we can get there without changing'). The more he avoids, the more problems it will create in his department, with his colleagues and ultimately in business (loss of markets). Moreover, he locks himself in a position where he only sees what feeds his desire not to change. The combination of fear of uncertainty, fear of loss for his leadership and for his future therefore leads him to attempt solutions based on avoidance and denial. While the environment will continue to demand changes, it will become more locked into these solutions to maintain the status quo.  

The problem is the solution (implementation) said Watzlawick. This notion of attempts at solution is certainly the most important contribution of the Palo Alto school to the study of communication. The problem arises from the ineffective way of regulating a system which should evolve according to the messages received from its environment. Unblocking the situation and regulating the system is then to produce the opposite movement in this manager. The entry door(s) is one of the 5 steps defined above (PEARL). It is essential for the coach or manager-coach to know how to gather information.

By extending the system, we are led to take into account its relationship with the sales manager. The axis of the sales manager was 'I have to fight in a competitive sector, so I have to differentiate myself to maintain or increase my market share'. An interactional dynamic was set in motion between the two directors with two different perceptions. The actions implemented between them lead to a relationship of opposition in symmetrical escalation. The escalation was unregulated and led to a conflict between people requiring resolution by a coach.

Even if the request from the HR department concerned the support of the production manager, the coaching framework includes the relational dynamics with other directors with an intervention on the framework thereof. The best possible intervention requires taking into account both elements (the central people) of the interactions and the context of the relationship. In this case, the entry points to change the system were: an evolution of the management of the director's fear, a change of perception among the two directors and a change in the framework of the relationship.   

At the level of the framework or the context, the position of the general manager must also evolve to learn how to manage (confront) conflicts and become a manager of paradox to make the two complementary polarities of stability/innovation interact.

In the end, the way of working has evolved. The resolution of the relational problem (the development of the managers) allowed a learning at the level of the organization generated by the protagonists.


References :

BRUNET M, GUETTIER A, GARCIA T, An interactional perspective of the paradoxical dynamics linked to the hierarchy of organizations and information flows, Management Research Day, Paradoxical approaches in Management: form, uses, dynamics, IAE Poitiers, 2015


GARCIA T, Linear and circular, (for systemic examples of intervention in business) in GREGORY LE ROY editor, Brief interventions in business.

GUILMOT N, VAS A, Active and defensive strategies to cope with paradoxes in a change context: a middle managers perspective, XXIV International Conference on Strategic Management, 2015

WATZLAWICK P., .BEAVAN J, JACKSON D, A logic of Communication, Editions Le threshold, Paris, 1972

WATZLAWICK P., The pathologies of large systems, Critical notebooks of family therapy and network practices, Toulouse, 1988