Wicked Problems: Competing Beliefs

Everyone faces this problem sooner or later – when two very good beliefs or values come into direct conflict with each other. So which wins out? For example, a recent post in LinkedIn about Chick-fil-A’s hiring strategy.  Chick-fil-A ensures that all of their hires believe the same Christian values as the owner and founder does – and in addition, the founder only approves married, Christian men for franchise ownership. This puts the founders personal beliefs, which we have been taught to respect, even if we disagree with them, against the idea that everyone should be treated based on their abilities, in spite of age, gender, marital status, sexual identity or a whole number of other “isms”.

As a professor at a Catholic college that serves only women, I face this conundrum every day. How do we support and live our Catholic heritage, while at the same time recognizing academic freedom, which allows us to criticize the Catholic Church? How do we respect the needs of non-Catholics in the institution? How do we support the rights of women to a women’s only education, while maintaining access for men, transgendered and others to some of our unique programs? This problem has recently emerged in the US, causing issues for many religiously affiliated colleges

At my institution we need to negotiate two competing beliefs, balancing respect for religious beliefs with equality of access. For example, how would our all women’s residence deal with a transgendered identified woman who has not yet had gender reassignment surgery? This isn’t as simple as it sounds.  For many of our Muslim students who live in our residence, having a someone who they believe is not “female” on the same floor would be a huge problem.

This is an example of negotiating competing discourses. At our college, one of our discourses is respect for the faith-based beliefs of others. At the same time, we also recognize that transgendered people who identify as female need a safe environment in which to be educated. Which of these beliefs will dominate? I don’t know what the answer will be. I do know that in the past our administrative has found creative solutions to meet both sets of needs, and will likely do so this time too. Roger Martin talks about “integrative thinking”, the idea that we can find ways to integrate two opposing ideas. It seems to me that we need to use some of Martin’s tools and approaches to deal with challenges of opposing ideas (p. 7).  Here is a summary of Martin’s approach (See the article for a complete description).

1. Articulate the models
a) Identify two extreme and opposing models
b) Sketch out the ideas
c) Define the logic of each model:
• Identify the most important players
• Define how the model works for them
2. Examine the models
a) Look Across
• What are the similarities?
• What are the genuine points of tension?
b) Look Within
• What assumptions underlie each model?
• What are the crucial causal relationships?
c) Look Again
• What, again, is the problem we’re hoping to solve?
• Given all of this, what would I want to keep from
each model?
3. Explore the possibilities
a) Under what conditions could one model actually generate
the benefits of the other?
b) How could a new model be created from one building block
from each model?
c) Could I parse the choice in a new way, so that each
model could be applied to a different part of the problem?
4.  Assess the prototypes
a) Under what conditions is this possibility a good one?
b) What conditions may not hold?
c) What tests could I run against those barriers

For me personally, the idea of competing discourses, especially when we believe both perspectives, is particularly difficult. How does a leader identify the best way to integrate both perspectives, while meeting the needs of all?  Many leaders choose one perspective and ignore the other.  Roger Martin suggests that it is possible to integrate the best of both discourses – although I suspect that it might take a lot of effort. Integrative thinking is a skill that takes both conscious effort and lots of practice. It’s worth doing. So get started.


Source:  Jennifer Riel &  Roger Martin. Integrative Thinking 2.0: A User’s Guide to your Opposable Mind, Rotman Magazine. Winter 2014.



2 replies »

  1. Hi Colleen — Just want to thank you for the great series of thought-provoking posts this summer. I look forward to seeing Thinking is Hard Work pop up in my feeds each week, and I know how hard it is to keep up a high quality blog. Just want you to know it is appreciated!

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