Towards the Paradox Mode of Theorizing in HRM - Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Examples

Research output: ThesisMaster's thesis


As operating environments become more complex and volatile, organizations and individuals face multitudes of intense and persistent tensions and competing demands. The Human Resources (HR) function, responsible for the most complex element of organizing—people—is particularly prone to tensions. However, despite the persistence of tensions in HRM research and practice, existing studies seldom go beyond recognizing and attempting to resolve them, to examine the nature and concurrent pursuit of competing demands. To address this, I advance an alternative, the paradox mode of theorizing and studying tensions in HRM. Paradoxes comprise competing, interrelated, simultaneous, and persistent elements that cannot be resolved for good and require concurrent pursuit (Smith; Lewis, 2011). In this thesis, composed of three interlinked essays, I propose that many long-standing tensions in HRM are paradoxical. In turn, I advance the conceptual foundations for and provide empirical examples of the paradox mode of theorizing in HRM. To that end, in the Summary part of this thesis I explore approaches to tensions in established perspectives on HRM to illustrate how the paradox mode complements existing research and explain its metatheoretical and philosophical foundations. Then, in Essay 1 I theorize the manifestations of the fundamental organizational paradoxes of learning, organizing, belonging, and performing (ibid.) in HRM, and discuss potential responses to paradoxical tensions. Within empirical examples, in Essay 2 I ground the concepts of the learning (operational–strategic) and organizing (integration–differentiation) HRM paradoxes in the theories of ambidexterity and absorptive capacities and examine their interaction in the adoption of corporate HRM practices in 105 subsidiaries of 12 MNCs. I find that ambidextrous HR departments, which possess high levels of both operational and strategic capabilities, are more adept at absorbing the corporate practices. In turn, in Essay 3 I build on studies of occupational logics, identities, and roles to explore how the belonging (managerial–professional logics) and performing (management–employee demands) paradoxes of HR practitioners manifest and interact at the level of an HR association. I observe a collective pursuit of professional identity, but also current decoupling of professional principles from the managerial standards of best practice, which reflects the co-existence and separation of paradoxical logics and role demands in the thinking of the largest HR association in Europe. This dissertation hopes to illustrate the potential benefits of and facilitate the studies of tensions in HRM to advance research, education, and the practice of people management, encouraging the pursuit of synergistic solutions to competing demands, current and future.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Aalto University
Award date05.04.2019
Print ISBNs978-952-60-8467-1
Electronic ISBNs978-952-60-8468-8
Publication statusPublished - 2019
MoE publication typeG2 Master's thesis, polytechnic Master's thesis


  • HRM paradoxes
  • HRM tensions
  • HRM transformation
  • HRM capabilities
  • HR roles
  • 512 Business and Management


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