Tension Is A Good Thing

December 7, 2014
If you could embrace one idea that would help you create a healthier, happier, and more productive team it’s the idea that tension is not a negative thing you’re trying to avoid; it’s a constructive thing you should actively encourage.

“What!?!,” you say. “You think I need more tension on my team! Trust me, I’ve got plenty of tension and I’d much prefer a little less, thank you very much.”

I know, right now the tensions on your team make you feel like you’re going to battle every day. That’s because you’re fighting over who is right rather than solving together for how to make the best decision.

Bad Tension

Disruptive, unproductive tension comes from thinking that you need to win people over to your side. The unproductive tension mindset is that giving in equals failing. It’s about getting your voice heard, being persuasive, and winning the day.  That’s just a nice way of saying that it’s about rigidity. Of course, the problem is that your teammates are being equally rigid in defending their points of view, so the whole dynamic feels like a tug of war that is only resolved when the mightier side gives the one good yank that lands everyone else on their backsides. I can see why you’re fed up with that kind of tension!

Good Tension

Productive, positive tension comes from thinking (believing, knowing) that you are responsible for advocating for your point of view and then engaging in a spirited debate about how to optimize the decision based on all the different points of view. In this model, staying on your initial position would be silly. You’re just bringing one ingredient and then figuring out what you can make when you combine it with the others.  Instead of picturing a tug of war, picture each member of your team holding a corner of a tarp: each person has to pull in a different direction to get the tarp spread out and taut.  When the tension is balanced, you cover the most ground.

Example

I was working recently with a leadership team that was feeling a whole lot of tension. Their team consisted of the leaders of their business lines and also the leaders of the support functions such as quality and sales. They were experiencing tension alright…but it was still the adversarial “they don’t get it” kind of tension.

When we started talking about the unique value that each member of the team brought to the table, you could see why things were challenging. One team member was the staunch defender of quality, another was equally passionate about cost reduction, and a third was trying to build in flexibility to the customer. The each had a completely different goal (a different direction they were pulling in).

Once we could name the different roles and validate the contribution each was making to the team, then we could add a second goal for each person.  First, create a compelling case for how the team could achieve your goal (greater efficiency, cost reduction, flexibility). Second, figure out together what the right solution is to optimize for each of those important goals.

When you feel like you’re in a win-lose scenario, tension feels terrible (especially when you’re in a tug of war with the 300lb strong man of your team). But when you feel like your job is to pull just hard enough in your direction that it balances out with those pulling in different directions, suddenly it feels like you have an important job to do…and obligation both to advocate well and then to collaborate effectively. That’s the kind of tension we need more of!

Try playing this out for your team. What’s your corner of the tarp? What are the other corners on your team? How can you create conversations that are more about optimizing and less about arguing? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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