Few people would lobby for more tension at work. Yet there are ways in which tension can not only be helpful, but transformative. Artists talk about the need to linger in a state of tension in order for the creative juices to flow. Likewise, people in organizations need a little agitation to keep collaboration alive.

Jim King wrote in an HBR blog that tension in teams is a good thing. He praises teams who handle it openly and don’t bury discomfort in the name of team unity. To keep discomfort to a minimum, Mr. King recommends physically arranging the team around a whiteboard, so that they are facing “the issue” instead of other team members. He also reinforced the need to keep the discussion focused on facts, not personal aspects. Too often, people assume that others have the same knowledge, when in fact they see reality much differently. Aligning on the verifiable truth early will avoid angry outbursts later.

Taken too far or dealt with inappropriately, tension can be destructive. How can you diagnose whether the tension your team is experiencing is destructive or transformative? The telltale signs of destructive tension are:

  • People frequently use the phrase, “Yes, BUT…”
  • Thinking is narrow, limited to short-term or the current situation only
  • Individuals “own” parts of the process or project and aren’t open to others’ ideas
  • There is lots of talking, but little listening
  • Little to no mutual understanding
  • Tension is not dealt with openly, but shows itself indirectly (e.g., snide remarks, silos and lack of communication)

When you have transformative tension in your team, you will see an increase in:

  • Creativity and innovation
  • Free flow of ideas
  • Listening for deep mutual understanding
  • Respectful treatment of everyone
  • Valuing ideas, even if they are new or unusual
  • Use of the term “Yes, AND…” to build on suggestions
  • Group ownership of projects and processes
  • Acceptance that positive tension can be productive and necessary

Maybe we should embrace the fact that tension is an inevitable and even necessary part of work life. As the old saying goes, Goodbye tension, hello pension!

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