Seeing the forest and the trees: how a systems perspective informs paradox research

Jonathan Schad, Pratima Bansal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

144 Citations (Scopus)


Paradox theory has fundamentally changed how researchers think about organizational tensions by emphasizing their oppositions and their interdependencies. Yet, most paradox studies focus on salient, perceived tensions, ignoring latent, nested tensions and their complex interconnections. This partial view is rooted in the paradox literature focusing on the epistemological realm (actors’ perception of tensions) while disregarding the ontological realm (tensions’ underlying reality). The focus on the epistemological aspects of the tensions impedes researchers from moving to more intricate insights into paradox, which could help address the realities of complex issues, such as wicked problems. We propose a systems perspective on paradox that discriminates the epistemological understandings from the ontological realities of tensions. By revealing the ontology of tensions, the underlying complexity becomes empirically interpretable. We illustrate the power of this perspective by offering two research strategies that can help researchers and organizations apprehend paradoxes grounded in systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1490-1506
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Management Studies
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018


  • complexity
  • paradox
  • scale
  • sustainability
  • systems
  • wicked problems

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