Why Your Team Needs to Cultivate a Culture of Healthy Tension

Why do we need healthy tension? Modern workplaces are kind of a crazy experiment when it comes to human interaction. You have all types of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, harboring varying lengths of teeth, driven by a myriad of motivations, all being asked to coagulate into one company mission.

It’s no wonder that friction abounds when any leader tries to get this Frankenstein to march in one direction. So, companies spend a lot of time trying to smooth out any impediments so that the collective can operate harmoniously.

Can you blame them? The drive for “frictionless everything” has permeated our culture as of late. Don’t want to shop? There’s Instacart. Don’t want to cook? There’s UberEats. Don’t want to date? There’s a bot you can chat with.

Whatever it is, why suffer discomfort when things can be easy?!

We often think about tension, and the resulting stress that can be a bi-product of tension, as a less is more equation. Route out tension, minimize stressors and things improve. Yet subtraction doesn’t always mean better. Sure, muscles can completely tear from overuse, but muscles will atrophy from lack of use. What muscles need is enough work to slightly tear, and enough rest to repair and grow. Further, stress, in the right doses, is healthy for the body and brain.

Same goes for an organization or team. Tension in the office is a goldilocks problem. We need to find a bowl of corporate and cultural porridge that is just right because teams thrive off a certain amount of tension.

How much tension?

We’re calling it: healthy tension in the workplace. Each team/organization needs to come up with a working definition of healthy tension so they can create the middle ground that works for their culture and needs.

We’ve come up with 5 Elements of Healthy Tension that teams and organizations can use to assess where they are, and where they might need to ratchet up or down.

The 5 Elements of Healthy Tension

1. Directness; or, a willingness to speak the truth, and say the thing that may feel uncomfortable. Beating around the bush, nodding to someone’s face but talking behind their back, biting your tongue when you know your voice could add value are merely avoidance tactics that kick the can of tension down the road for a future rupture.

Healthy Tension:

Leader: “Hey [Employee], I’ve noticed that your recent reports have been missing some key details. I know you’re capable of delivering high-quality work, so I wanted to check in and see if there’s anything hindering your progress or if you need any additional support.”

Toxic Tension:

Leader: “Whether you’re consistent or not on other projects doesn’t matter to me. If you can’t improve your performance, we’ll be implementing disciplinary action. Get your shit together.”

2. Curiosity; or, a desire and willingness to explore another’s perspective, even and especially when it’s counterintuitive to your own. If we’re not willing to “seek to understand” we won’t allow for someone to feel safe in their vulnerability. Curiosity presumes that you are interested in learning more. Obviously, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. 

Healthy Tension:

Leader: “Hi [Employee], I’ve noticed that you’ve been exploring some new approaches in your project. I’m curious about your thought process behind these changes and how you envision them benefiting our team’s performance. Would you mind walking me through this new approach?”

Toxic Tension:

Leader: “Hey, I don’t know how else to say this, but we’ve got a system in place and what you’re doing doesn’t fit the bill. You’re going to have to shape up and get onboard, quickly.”

3. Trust; a belief that the other person or other group, values your contributions, work, and respects your viewpoint. Trust is important in any relationship, but that trust needs to be earned. If someone keeps getting preferential treatment without doing the work, it’s not trust that will increase tension, it will be everyone else’s opinions of how it is doled out.

Healthy Tension: 

Leader: “I’ve observed your consistent dedication and excellent performance on recent projects. Even in moments of struggle, your clear communication created trust in your judgment and decision-making abilities. I’d like to delegate more responsibilities to you as I know the areas that need to develop are areas you’re excited to grow in. Let’s discuss how I can best support you along the way.”

Toxic Tension:

Leader (in a team meeting): “Hey Sarah, I know that last project didn’t go so well, but I trust you’ll be able to figure it out this time around.”

4. Positive Intent; the desire to debate in a way that not only improves the outcomes or decisions that are being made, but also seeks to build or grow the relationship. Disagreements are surely going to happen, in fact we want diverse teams not bogged down by groupthink, but it’s how those disagreements get ironed out that becomes important.

Healthy Tension:

“I appreciate your perspective on this issue. I honestly hadn’t ever thought of it that way, but I still feel strongly about my POV. You mind if I think about this some more and we revisit later this afternoon?”

Toxic Tension:

“Yeah, I wouldn’t worry if what you said seemed to go over IT’s head. They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed. At times it feels like we’re talking to third graders.”

5. A Shared Outcome; a sense of agreement on what questions need to be answered, a set of guardrails that are informing what a good outcome in this situation would be. Everyone might have their own styles and idiosyncrasies, but everyone should at least be paddling towards the same goal.

Healthy Tension:  

“Your points resonate with me, and I’m on board with the general direction. However, there are some specifics I’d like to iron out together to ensure we’re all on the same page regarding expectations.

Toxic Tension:  

“No need to get into the specifics, our top line thinking feels aligned enough, moving on…”

How Might This Work For You And Your Team?

Teams cannot operate on an elite level if their modus operandi is avoidance. There should always be some push and pull. We need to challenge each other and inspire each other, but without every interaction feeling like a tug-of-war over a pit of snakes.

Perhaps a great place to start with your team is to take a pulse check (even if it’s an anonymous survey) at how well you all embody the 5 elements of healthy tension. Maybe your team can offer suggestions on how to improve an individual element within your organization. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you found out your team would value an open conversation on finding the right balance of directness and curiosity in 1 on 1’s? You can also check out our case study on digital transformation and how we used journey maps to literally design healthy tension into cross-functional collaboration.

Curious about how to define and build healthy tensions within or across your teams? Here are a few of the ways we help clients with culture change, with a big emphasis on putting these new ways of working into action (not just codifying them into a beautifully dusty powerpoint for you).

Lastly, in the spirit of healthy tension, we’d love to know if you think we’re missing an element. Do you have a magic ingredient that would make this tension porridge more palpable? Share it with us. 

Let’s grow together.

Jason Wisdom
[email protected]

Jason Wisdom is one of the co-founders and partners at The Design Gym, a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot him a note at [email protected].

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