Leading through tension

Tension is unavoidable in the workplace. At any one time, managers and leaders will always have to face and tackle the conundrum of how to make progress on seemingly conflicting objectives at the same time. Leaders need to recognise that tensions are a normal state of affairs within the workplace and accept that there are no right or wrong answers when choosing which strategy to take and what goals to focus on.

While there is no way in which managers can completely diffuse and avoid tension altogether, there are some excellent strategies for managing tension and cultivating an environment that embraces tension and ensure it stays positive and productive. Let’s look a little deeper into this idea.

The three main types of tensions in an organisation

Of all the tensions affecting an organisation, we can assign them to one of three main categories. At any point in time, organisation need to focus on one route or the other, not both. The more progress on one front usually comes at the expense of the other.

  1. Short Term versus Long Term
    Focussing on the short-term planning involves addressing the characteristics of the company in the present and develops strategies for improving them. When a company focusses on the long-term development of the company, they are striving to recognise the environment in which they are operating and making changes to stay relevant. Naturally, you are going to have those people in the organisation more aware of the short term needs of the business as they face them on a daily basis. A bank teller, for example, is acutely aware that the software in their customer-facing role needs to be improved (so is focussed on short term objectives), whereas management may be more aware and focussed on the long term needs of the business.
  2. Profitability versus Growth
    Companies in a phase of growth will experience short term losses and when they are striving for higher profits, it will require less focus on growth and a cutting back on sales and marketing expenses. Again, people with different roles and motivations within the business will favour one or the other of these objectives. Shareholders and investors will of course favour profitability, whereas management may be more aware and focussed on the long term growth of the company. At any point in time the company overall needs to focus on one or the other of these objectives and of course this will shift and change over the course of time.
  3. Predictability vs Agility
    An organisation needs to be able to guarantee a certain standard and level of stability and predictability. In the rapidly changing environment in which we live, a company also needs to be agile or flexible enough to tackle and embrace the unexpected and respond accordingly. Naturally this is going to cause tensions amongst the people in the organisation as some will favour predictability and some will favour agility.

So what’s the key to managing tensions?

Determining what tension is most important at any point is an ongoing challenge for leaders. Learning how to manage tensions amongst staff is an important skill, and possibly one of the hardest aspects to manage in any organisation.

Over many years, I have worked with hundreds of leaders and have noted that the most successful ones are those who balance these tensions right. They possess the ability to turn conflict and disagreement amongst staff, into progress. The effective leader can embrace the right tensions and make them work in a positive way to move the company forward. In fact, out of disagreement and competing agendas, the truly effective leader will strive to arrive at agreement and collective goals. After all if everyone feels they are working towards something they believe in, productivity will flourish. When staff are not united in common goals and greater meaning of the company, they become dysfunctional and poorly motivated. Personal agendas can get in the way of the real work that could improve a company’s performance and potential with people involved in conflict with one another, rather than working together for the company’s good.

Productive tension is good for everyone

As a leader, open communication is key. Everyone needs to be heard and the facilitative leader will help to understand everyone’s point of view and work together to facilitate the right focus and determine the right strategy to take. You can manage these situations by accepting this ongoing dynamic to the workplace, managing expectations, reconnecting staff with the bigger picture and aiming for the overall growth of the company rather than just focussing on one collective part. By keeping the bigger picture in mind, a manager can in fact allow discussions to take place that will ensure the tension is good tension, productive tension, that creates a positive energy to move the company forward. A good leader can nudge people into agreement to embrace a particular objective for the overall good of the organisation.

Too much negative tension can cause negative energy and a bad working culture where people are not aligned. On the other hand, too little tension could spell the death of a company, one with no fight and no purpose. Leaders who strive to create a productively tense dynamic within the company culture, a healthy tension, is vital to the overall performance of the company. Accept that tensions are inevitable and work to cultivate them productively.

Would you like to help your team strengthen their ability to handle tensions in a productive and positive way? I can help with my leadership training and custom workshops. Get in touch today.

Share News