Manage TensionDec 17, 2020
It is inherent in the role of leadership to create tension. By definition, leaders take people to places that are unfamiliar, often uncomfortable, and even threatening. We might even say that the first job of a great leader is to increase the level of stress. Some might even call it chaos. If we don’t understand this basic fact, we’ll be caught off guard when we sense tension on our teams, we’ll back down instead of pushing ahead, and we’ll become paralyzed by the fear of disapproval.
When leaders are afraid of tension, they send a loud and clear signal that they’re abdicating their responsibility to lead. Tension is inescapable: how we handle it either increases our leadership equity or drains it dry. Trying to avoid sticky conversations only leads to more tension and lower credibility.
We create tension in many different ways, and some of them are quite intentional. For our executive team, I had avoided shining a spotlight on the elephant in the room for a long, long time, but when I did, no one could hide. The team finally knew I saw what they saw, and I wasn’t afraid to call it out. They also saw that my steps of resolution didn’t make me the center of attention. I asked for everyone to be honest about what they’d seen in the ongoing dispute, and I asked the two of them to work things out. This process certainly raised the level of tension on our team, but it was absolutely necessary. Before that day when I spoke into the conflict, the team may have wondered if I valued our relationships, but after that day, they didn’t doubt it any longer.
I believe people on teams intuitively ask a number of questions about the leader when conflict isn’t addressed:
- Does he see what I see?
- If he doesn’t see it, how can he be so blind?
- Will he ever see it?
- If he sees it and hasn’t done anything about it, can I trust him?
The moral to the story is to find the courage to wade in to tension on your team or in your family. Your first impulse may be to run and hide, or to clamp down and control, but instead, invite discussion, affirm observations, and ask people to participate in the resolution. There are, I believe, two kinds of interpersonal tension: destructive and productive. We need insight to see which is which.
We’re all familiar with the proverb, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). When iron sharpens iron, sparks fly! Don’t be afraid of that. Disagreement can be very healthy because it forces people to think more clearly and plan more effectively. But at the point when pressure becomes unbearable, iron crushes. When we see this happening, it’s time to step in, speak the truth, and invite people to enter a process of self-discovery and resolution.
In an article for Entrepreneur, Dr. David G. Javitch lists “7 Steps to Defuse Workplace Tension.” He recommends that we step back and see the big picture in our workplace interpersonal stresses. Two of the steps Javitch recommends are to help both parties find common ground and encourage compromise. Both people have a stake in the outcome, and it’s important for the leader to build a bridge between them…or at least offer a bridge and see if they’ll walk onto it. Then, each one can give a little to gain a lot—sometimes including continued employment! Painful feelings don’t change overnight, but each person can make a commitment to speak with civility and act with integrity. Over time, resentment can turn into respect. They don’t have to become best friends, but for a team to operate, a baseline of mutual respect is essential.
We aren’t going to have a tension-free life until we’re in the presence of Jesus. When we resolve a tension, we need to be aware that we’re setting the stage for a new, higher, and hopefully more productive form. In this way, we go from tension to tension, always learning, always growing, and always teaching others how to handle it.
We also intentionally create tension by asking what’s working and why it’s working. Most organizations focus their attention on what’s not working, and they spend inordinate amounts of time and effort to fix it. I’ve found that it’s more productive (and encouraging) to devote more resources to make successes even better. Questioning failure creates tension that often demoralizes. Questioning success creates tension, but it affirms and inspires.
Most of us avoid tension, and if we have to wade into it, we want it to be over as quickly as possible. In conflict, this often pushes us to take sides with one person over the other. A power play may seem to be a good solution, but it invariably increases the level of tension and results in even more intense conflict later. The person we supported appreciates us, but the other one often feels more than misunderstood—he feels betrayed.
I’ve found it’s a good idea to avoid taking sides except in cases of truth and integrity. In the vast majority of situations, disputes are about opinions, preferences, and processes. I ask both people to come to see me, and I ask each one to tell me what’s going on…and I listen. Instead of jumping to a conclusion and ending the discussion, I say, “Okay, that’s helpful. Tell me more about it.”
When I interject a comment, I make sure it’s positive. I may say, “I see some areas of disagreement, but I see that you’re both trying to achieve the same goal. Different ideas aren’t a threat to any of us. In fact, we’ll be wiser and stronger by listening to each other.”
Quite often, the two people talk for a long time, and since they’re talking in front of their supervisor or team leader, they eventually look for a mutually satisfactory solution to resolve the tension. However, in a few cases, this tension-resolution strategy causes people to harden their positions. They become demanding and defensive, which tells me more than they want me to know about them. When this happens, I address the problem beneath the problem, and again, this process gives me valuable insights into the hearts, minds, and motives of the people involved.
One of the principles I’ve found to be helpful is to stay engaged in the understanding phase of a conversation long enough so that I can articulate the other person’s point of view as well (or almost as well) as he can. The first task of a counselor is for the person to feel understood, and one of the most important tasks of a leader is for team members (and anyone else) to feel that we understand them. It takes time, but we’re far more likely to win a friend and build trust if we ask a few more questions, listen a little longer, and then say, “This is what I hear you saying.” After we’ve defended the other person’s position, she can say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying,” or she can explain, “No, you don’t quite get it. Let me try again.” Either way, we’re communicating the more important message that we value the person more than winning the dispute.
We can identify three kinds of tension:
- the kind that needs to be resolved
- the kind that can be overlooked
- the kind that is good, healthy, and productive because it pushes us to be our best
If we can identify which of these categories a particular tension falls into, we’ll have a good head start on how to respond. We’ve already analyzed at least one kind that needs resolution, but we can’t go around jumping into every tension we see every day. We need to do a kind of tension triage, devoting our attention to a few and ignoring the others (at least for the moment). We don’t deny those exist, and we don’t tell others they don’t matter, but we don’t spend our time trying to put out every brushfire on our teams, in our organizations, or at home.
A team member’s incompetence creates tension for the leader and everyone on the team. Everyone has to spend time thinking about how to respond to the person who’s usually late, unprepared, or says things that don’t apply to the situation. This is like a driver whose car has stalled on the highway, leaving a mile-long back-up of frustrated drivers behind him. They can’t help thinking about the mess someone else has made! Instinctively, responsible people on the team try to fill in the gaps, so the irresponsible person can create a cascade of new decisions by the leader and other people on the team. I applaud these people for their willingness to put the team’s goals above their personal convenience, but this is another point when I need to step in to address the tension in the room.
I can’t resolve every tension; in fact, I can’t even address all of them. I envision myself on the end of a dozen ropes. Each one has someone who is trying to pull me in a direction. I can’t play tug-of-war with all of them, so I have to choose. I may pick up only one rope in a day, or I may pick up two or three. If I don’t pick up a rope, there’s no tug, no tension. I have to be sure, though, that I can handle the tugs. The ropes are always there, but my choices can vary widely based on my time, my capacity, and the existing situations. When I let a rope lay on the floor, I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. I’m only saying that today isn’t the day for me to pick it up and feel the tension. I don’t feel guilty for making these decisions. I recognize my limitations, and I also recognize that if I tried to hold them all, I wouldn’t be able to respond well to any of them. They’ll still be there tomorrow, and tomorrow may be the right day for me to pick one up that I walked past today.
As we’ve seen, many of the tensions we face are healthy. We experience them because we’re pushing for more, helping people take bold steps, and reaching for greater goals. These only become toxic if we push too hard, we don’t listen to the concerns of people, or if we feel so uncomfortable with the tension that we back away from the opportunities.
The Good Side of Failure
The true measure of leaders isn’t their list of glowing successes, but how they respond to delays, opposition, and failures. If our egos are so fragile that we fall apart when we hit a wall, we’ll scale back our vision so failure isn’t a threat, we’ll fail to recruit the best people because only mediocre talents will be satisfied with small challenges, and we’ll lose the respect of people who follow us.
A positive response to failure begins with rigorous self-analysis. We ask ourselves and we ask a trusted mentor, “What did I do well, and what needs improvement?” The answers provide rungs on the ladder of personal progress.
Failure can shatter our confidence and erode our enthusiasm, but growing leaders develop tenacity, a strong commitment to see opportunities in every situation. This strength of character is incredibly attractive and allows them to engage competent people who can thrive in the leader’s environment.
Defeat, then, isn’t the end of the world; in fact, it can be the beginning of something great. The best leaders learn from difficulties and are energized by failures. They redirect their tension away from self-pity or blaming others and toward concrete steps forward. They know they aren’t helpless. No matter how high the mountain, they still have the will to climb.
Eyes that see are common, but eyes that perceive are rare. We may not have been born with an unwavering spirit, but we can develop this necessary quality. Being around leaders who exhibit consistent optimism coupled with raw honesty can transform us and give us borrowed courage. Our leadership quotient is based on our perception of our ability to find resources and enlist people to tackle the challenges in front of us. Tension, then, is in the eye of the beholder. A situation that causes one person to wilt enflames another person’s passion and commitment.
People around us—those on our teams, in our families, and in our wider circles of connections—are watching to see how we handle success and failure. If we share the credit, we build strong relationships, and if we refuse to blame others for defeats, we show them that they can trust us. Every situation, positive or negative, glorious or horrible, can have redemptive value if others see us respond with calm confidence that even difficulties will teach us some of life’s most valuable lessons.
Who are our heroes? They aren’t the people who have enjoyed unbroken success. They’re the ones who have overcome adversity. The stories we tell, the books we read, the histories we learn, and the movies that inspire us are about people who faced long odds and clawed their way through seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve noble goals.
Our chief aim, then, isn’t to avoid tension at all costs, but to use tension to affirm relationships, inspire courage, and build character—in ourselves and in the people we lead.
But let me offer this word of warning: don’t focus too much on the tension. In other words, don’t let worries about tension consume you. You’ll be a more effective leader—and you’ll last for much longer in the role—if you know what you love to do and you live at the crossroads of passion and talent. Yes, you’ll have to wade into the mud of awkward and difficult relationships from time to time, but energize yourself with the activities at which you excel, and delegate many of the other things to talented, passionate, competent people.
Leadership is all about failure—actually, it’s all about responding to failure with optimism and honesty. When you fail, get up and keep going. When others fail, turn it into a learning experience. Like great movies, turn tragedy into triumph.
Your positive response to adversity is the path to greatness.
Create the Culture
A business leader told a friend, “I’ve had terrible years in the company but with terrific relationships on our team, and I’ve had fantastic years in business with a lot of tension on our team. I’ll take the positive team culture every time.”
A positive, healthy organizational culture isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity, and it affects everything from office communications to employee satisfaction to the public branding. A Forbes article reports the research by Deloitte that 94 percent of executives and 88 percent of employees believe a strong corporate culture is essential to business success. “Deloitte’s survey also found that there is a strong correlation between employees who claim to feel happy and valued at work and those who say their company has a strong culture.”1
I’ve written extensively about the importance of corporate and church culture and how to create one that inspires employees. It’s a mistake, though, to assume you can radically reorient culture with a talk or a memo or a single program. Changing culture is like a battleship changing directions: it has to be done slowly and deliberately. And don’t assume a healthy culture has little or no tension. Positive environments welcome tension and use it to stimulate conversation, planning, and effectiveness.
Take stock of the kinds of tension you normally experience—at home, at work, in your health, and so on—and analyze your common responses to them. Don’t let tension rise from a lack of clear purpose, an unworkable strategy, and poor delegation. This is shooting yourself in the foot! Great leaders aren’t afraid of tension, but they don’t create unnecessary tension either. They push for greater goals, and they accept the reality of the tension a big vision produces.
Every moment of every day, we’re shaping the culture around us. Tension isn’t the enemy. When we use it wisely to stretch people to be and do their best, it’s one of our best friends. The people around us are watching to see how we handle the stresses of life and leadership. If they see us managing tension effectively, they’ll follow our example, and we’ll all become wiser, stronger, and better leaders.
- Alan Kohll, “How to Build a Positive Company Culture,” Forbes, August 14, 2018 (forbes.com/sites/alankohll/2018/08/14/how-to-build-a-positive-company-culture/#529b9fbb49b5).
- See Culture Catalyst (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2018).