What to Do When Things Get Tense

What to Do When Things Get Tense

Dealing with Tension in the Workplace - Mark McClain

We all live with tension, but not all tension is bad. The trick is developing the ability to tell the difference between good tension and bad tension.  To do that, you’ll have to learn which situations represent a healthy tension that can make your organization stronger versus those where unhealthy tension can create damage.  Getting this right is one of the keys to leading a successful organization.

Many of us can (and do) get so stressed about doing things correctly (or nearly perfectly) that we’re unable to function. That’s an unhealthy tension. But if you let yourself get lackadaisical and complacent, without any tension, that can be pretty unhealthy as well. Individually, we all need a healthy amount of tension in our lives to achieve our full potential. This idea applies to anything demanding: physical training, mental toughness, emotional resilience, and spiritual development. Resistance and tension are often key elements in our growth and development if we learn how to handle them well.

Similarly, there can certainly be healthy and unhealthy tension at work. It can arise between individuals, between teams, or within teams. But if you’re working with people, whether one or a thousand, tension and disagreements will happen. So, as a leader, when is it OK to let people disagree? And maybe even get into arguments?

Provided they’re arguing over concepts and best approaches to the challenges of their work objectives; the answer is all the time. Only good can come from open and even heated, lively discussion of the best way to accomplish things.

But that’s not always human nature, is it? There’s often an unhealthy tension between coworkers where people either go passive-aggressive or just flat-out aggressive. In the first case, rather than hashing out an issue in direct dialogue, they go off behind people’s backs and undermine them or their cause. In the latter case, they don’t just talk it out. They resort to screaming and yelling and even name-calling.

The presence—or lack—of tension speaks to leadership. In thinking about organizational culture, the type of tension you allow to manifest says a lot about your company. If you allow people to scream and yell and throw things at each other—whether names or actual objects—good people typically won’t want to stay in that environment because it’s just not healthy. But, in organizations where issues get “buried” rather than dealt with openly, a whole different set of concerns can show up.

There’s no perfect answer here because some organizations with lots of tension and competition in their cultures do well. At the same time, others where things are more collegial and collaborative also do well. But Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel, who played a significant role in making that company into an industry behemoth, got it as close to right as I have seen with an approach that became known as “Disagree and Commit.”

His approach was essential that his teams would vehemently argue to ensure they turned over every option. He encouraged people to play devil’s advocate to shoot holes in every approach before it was adopted. But then, when they had hashed it all out and exited as a team, everyone would commit to what had been decided.

Grove’s point was that most companies get it backward: they seek a “collegial” agreement in the meeting but allow people to decommit outside the meeting. Bad stuff.  The whole point of meeting as a team is to look at all the issues from every angle, get the disagreements out on the table, let everybody be heard, and then universally commit to a plan. It turns out that research has shown that when leaders miss the step of ensuring everyone can be heard, it leads to a lot of discontent and anger. In seeking to “keep the peace” in the meeting, they’re setting up for war outside the meeting.

If you are bought in that managing with healthy tension is the right answer, what can you do to prepare for these situations practically? One thought is to think about how and where it will show up. The first area that springs to mind is managing different types of people or groups in an organization.

For instance (and I’ll admit to overgeneralizing here—somewhat), there are significant differences between managing creative types in a marketing department and accountants in the finance group. There will always be tension between those who are motivated to deliver high-quality “artistic” content, such as graphic design, compelling photography, and other messaging forms. However, much of the highest-quality content is also the most expensive—which tends not to sit well with the accounting team, which is charged with controlling and managing expenses. So rather than see this as a problem with a “solution,” I’ve found it better to understand and acknowledge that this tension will likely always exist and ensure that both groups’ leaders are managing the trade-offs optimally.

And if you cultivate a kind of collegiality, where people are genuinely interested in “What’s the best answer here?” then, theoretically, at least, everybody will say, “You know what? I see where I can sacrifice this or that for the sake of the project. While I was in a different place at the beginning of that discussion, I’m on board now. I’m willing to commit to this answer because we all hashed it out together.”

The key to getting it from theory to reality lies in ensuring that disagreements are never personal or unfair. And, for you as a leader, to understand when and where these disagreements might arise. The mandate must be clearly understood: It’s OK here to attack and debate an idea or a strategy or an implementation plan, but it’s never OK to attack a person because that kind of tension is unhealthy for everyone.

So, if you’re the type of leader who enjoys tension, just be sure that you’re insisting on healthy tension. Conversely, if you’re the type of leader who tends to avoid tension, learn to embrace the idea that vigorous, lively debate and interaction is often the best way to get to the optimal answer for any challenge. If you’d like to read more thoughts on managing tension and creating a great successful organization that doesn’t suck (the life out of people!), you’ll find it in my book, Joy and Success at Work.

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