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Wendy Smith is a professor of management in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

UD Prof. Wendy Smith honored

Management theory of paradox recognized as one of decade’s most significant

Wendy Smith, professor of management in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, and Marianne Lewis, dean and professor of management in the University of Cincinnati’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business, received the Academy of Management Review’s (AMR) Decade Award for their co-authored paper, “Toward a Theory of Paradox: A Dynamic Equilibrium Model of Organizing” published in 2011. The Academy of Management Review rates as the top journal in management and organizational studies that publishes articles advancing theory and insight. Considered the journal’s highest recognition, the AMR Decade Award honors the paper with the greatest impact on research in the last 10 years as reflected in metrics such as citations rates.

Smith, who is also co-director of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at UD’s Lerner College, and Lewis accepted their awards at the Academy of Management 2021 conference at the annual Academy of Management Review board meeting held virtually on Aug. 1.

“I am excited to see the growing community of academics, consultants and leaders using the lens of paradox to better unpack the challenges they face,” said Smith. “I continue to learn so much from seeing how other people use the ideas that we included in this paper.”

Lewis agreed, saying: “I am grateful to collaborate with such a paradoxical thinker as Wendy, and to be inspired by the growing paradox community globally. It is energizing to learn with scholars and leaders who embrace paradox, pushing us all to move beyond over-simplified and over-rationalized either/or dilemmas toward more inclusive and creative both/and alternatives.”

Smith and Lewis’ paper advances a theory of organizational paradox — competing demands that seem logical in isolation, but absurd when juxtaposed, such as pressure between today and tomorrow, financial and social responsibilities, self and other, collaboration and competition. Previous scholarship predominantly framed these tensions as dilemmas that could be solved by making an either/or choice. Smith and Lewis drew on previous research in organizational theory, as well as psychology, sociology, philosophy and theology to instead advance a paradox approach to competing demands. They argue that paradoxes lurk underneath our presenting dilemmas. These paradoxes are contradictory and interdependent, such that they can never be resolved. Instead, applying both/and thinking allows us to engage with the underlying paradoxes to generate new, creative opportunities.

In their paper, they define paradox, identify four different categories of paradox and offer a model for how these tensions can be generative over time. Drawing on their work, scholars have started to study paradox across a wide variety of domains, from innovation and organizational change to leadership to identity and sustainability and beyond.

Smith and Lewis are recognized by the Web of Science among the top 1% most cited researchers in their field. Smith’s research focuses on strategic paradoxes — how leaders and senior teams effectively respond to contradictory agendas. She studies how organizations and their leaders simultaneously explore new possibilities while exploiting existing competencies, and how social enterprises simultaneously attend to social missions and financial goals. Her research has been published in journals such as Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Administrative Science Quarterly, Harvard Business Review, Organization Science and Management Science. Smith earned her master’s degree in psychology from Harvard University and doctorate in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School.

Lewis’ research explores tensions and competing demands surrounding leadership and innovation. She applies her paradox lens across such diverse contexts as product development, organizational change, governance and technology implementation. Lewis has earned numerous teaching and research awards throughout her academic career. Her work appears in such journals as the Harvard Business Review, Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, and Journal of Operations Management. Lewis earned her MBA from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and doctorate from the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky.

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