7 Ways to Adopt Dialectical Thinking in a VUCA World

7 Ways to Adopt Dialectical Thinking in Crises

Published 30th April 2020
Peta Delahunty

HQ Asia Writer

Published 30th April 2020

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – or what is known as a VUCA state – is an established part of business life that organisations, leaders and HR professionals deal with on a daily basis. A lot of focus is on what actions leaders are taking today to combat the societal, environmental and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. But could the way a leader thinks be more important?

HCLI identifies four key challenges - talent, technology, business model, and macroeconomic disruptions – that create this VUCA world. Adopting East Asian Dialectical Thinking as a response could help leaders navigate this VUCA business environment. But what is dialectical thinking and how does it help? How can leaders develop it themselves and amongst their employees under pressure, when the whole organisation is challenged to cope with change?

To start, what does dialectical thinking mean?

  • It's a form of thought around perceptions, change and interconnections that are influenced by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. It is distinctly different from the linear and formal logic of the Western World.
  • Its core aspect is change. Dialectical thinkers expect constant change, in greater magnitude, with more variability and multiple versions that may contradict or be inconsistent with one another. This contrasts with the typically more Western mindset, where stability or linear change is more predictable with gradual increases or decreases.
  • It assumes the interconnected nature of all things, where elements are contradictory and oppositional, but fundamentally connected and unified. This is opposed to Western Aristotelian formal logic, which permits the abstraction of objects, ideas, and events from their context, which can be analysed in isolation.  

Applying Dialectical thinking to the VUCA world

What does East Asian cognition offer senior business leaders – and even the rest of the world – as they struggle to find solutions to the VUCA environments they are confronted with? Now, as organisations are facing unprecedented disruption, COVID-19 is a prime example of how this approach could be helpful.

Roger Martin highlights in his article, “How Successful Leaders Think”, that one works through four steps when responding to challenges and crises.

  1. Determining salience – what are the factors to take into account when dealing with a challenge, and what are other factors that can be set aside?
  2. Analysing causality – how do the salient factors relate to one another?
  3. Envisioning the decision architecture – which decision to make, how should the decisions be ordered, and how should owners be assigned?
  4. Achieving outcomes – what is the outcome?

When dialectical thinking is applied to this four-step problem-solving process, the process looks like Figure 1, in contrast with Western conventional thinking.

Western conventional thinking VS Dialectical Thinking
Figure 1. Conventional Thinking VS Dialectical Thinking when responding to a challenge

To respond to VUCA, business leaders need to have clarity, vision, agility and understanding. These are all issues that cannot be effectively resolved with linear thinking, which is how many professionals have been trained. Dialectical thinking frees us from assuming that the world comes in organised boxes and thus feeling out of control – instead, it assumes complexity, interconnectivity and an ever-changing world, and so allows us to adapt and transform quickly.

Adopting Dialectical Thinking 

How can leaders help others think in such a manner and even embed it in organisational culture?

Here are seven tips for fostering dialectical thinking in yourself and in your organisation: 

1)  Refuse to settle for simplicity and certainty, but dare to look for complexity and change (even contradictions). Sometimes we know that a problem has deeper roots than its surface belies. Instead of shying away from looking at the problem in its full complexities, jump right in. For instance, while brainstorming business solutions for the various disruptions that COVID-19 has caused, don’t resort to saying things like “please do not complicate the issue” as it often shuts down the chances of arriving at a novel solution.

2)  Refuse to default to linear regression for establishing relationships between variables. Instead of relying only on past performance histories to plan the future, focus on scenario planning, AI-enhanced if you have the capabilities, to manage the uncertainties of the future and for reacting and quickly executing strategic change.

3) Refuse either-or choices. Especially in times of stress, it is easy to narrow in and buckle down on the choices in front of you. Instead, don’t force a right or wrong scenario but give time and space to allow for a new and third solution.

4) Take time out from the situation or challenge to gain a social and psychological distance from it. As mentioned above, stress induces a fight-or-flight mechanism in our brains, which makes us great at narrowing in and focusing. However, it often means we become blind to some things. It’s better to manage an issue by distancing yourself from it for a moment, giving yourself time to take a break from it and to reflect on it.

5) Re-think the division of labour in your team or organisation. Examine the specialisations in your team and foster initiatives and structures that facilitate a broader context, interconnectedness among colleagues and an orientation towards the external environment. The last thing you want developing are silos of ways of thinking, information and communication, especially when everyone is working from home.

6) Participate in industry and even cross-industry activities. Even in the crisis, there are ways to participate online. Interacting with peers outside of your industry expands your worldview. To facilitate communication with others, lose your professional or industry jargon and learn from one another. This is how ideas and innovation are sparked!

7) Even in your personal life, do not only focus on self. It is important to take care of yourself and have a space for comfort and rest. However, it is equally important to invest in your own growth. Look outwards at the people around you and consider ways of stepping out of your comfort zone, for example, mentoring. Read books and watch videos that allow you to learn new ways of thinking and being.

Cognitive processes are key to driving action. In crisis, it is especially important to be aware of our personal cognitive processes as well as that of the organisation. Listen to diverse voices. Keep creativity and imagination alive. Allow for space and time to mull and reflect, even though it feels as if everything needs to happen right now. Honing dialectical thinking skills is one effective way of tuning into the frequency of a VUCA world. With this way of thinking, senior leaders should expect that change is cyclical and inevitable; accept contradiction, without rushing to resolve it; and see interconnectedness among objects, people, systems, and ideas – understanding that they all exist in context.

Although many are more attuned to a linear and more isolated cognitive paradigm, changing this is possible with effort. Sometimes, it is not the world around you that needs to change, but the way you understand the world – suddenly, possibilities arise even amidst the chaos. 


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