Orchestrating Tension for Collaborative Growth: A Leadership Strategy

Exploring how leaders can turn workplace tension into a powerful tool for collaboration and growth, with practical tips and insights.

Abstract art representing the transformation of workplace tension into collaborative growth.
Synergy in Contrast: Visualizing the Dynamic Shift from Tension to Teamwork

Tension in the workplace often carries a negative connotation, but as leaders, recognizing and harnessing this tension can transform it into a powerful tool for collaborative growth. Often, tension is avoided for the sake of avoiding conflict. Conflict avoidance can become a challenge for one's ability to lead when creating, identifying, and helping people learn to navigate tense moments, which can be beneficial to foster diversification of ideas and resolve ambiguity. At its core, tension arises from conflicts between ideas, preferences, or directions. For instance, tension surfaces when a team member is assigned to a project they don't resonate with or when colleagues have differing views on a strategy.

The key lies in noticing points of tension. Instead of viewing them merely as conflicts, leaders can view them as opportunities for deeper engagement and innovation by broadening the conversation, identifying the unspoken details, and steering toward alignment. For example, when two colleagues disagree on a project approach, a leader can encourage exploring both ideas through safe-to-fail experiments instead of forcing a consensus. This method, often highlighted in Dave Snowden's lectures, involves running many safe-to-fail experiments simultaneously, offering insights without significant risks. Dave Snowden's recommendation to focus on Safe-to-fail experiments allows teams to gather new information, making more informed and collective decisions. Agreeing on exploring multiple paths simultaneously is a great way to allow for the learning process to continue and the sense of shared ownership to be established.

Tips for exploring tense moments

Identify the deciding factors.

In conflict, there are multiple camps that people root their choices on. Look for the facts here and note down whenever the conversation offers adjectives like "this is just better" or "the other option is just bad practice." Be aware of when professionals offer practice jargon to position their intellectual bias as a place of general acceptance. Even when there is truth, open the conversation so that it is understood by all where that posture originates. Multiple experts may have valid approaches to solving the same problem in complex situations. And innovation never came from doing everything the same way as everyone else - so if this is a safe place and we can afford time for innovation (safe-to-fail) then finding time to explore may be worth the while.

Notice the emotions are in play.

People make most of their decisions from an emotional place. It could be familiarity that makes them comfortable; it could be fear of what might happen if there is a success, or it could be a fear of the unknown. While emotions are great for helping us guide our instincts, emotions also rush people in a direction when it might be a good time to gather more data.

Knowing when to offer relief

People avoid conflict and tension because they consume so much energy. In fast-paced environments where we have people trying to cover a lot of ground, at the same time, our lazy adaptation tends to drive us away from difficult conversations instinctively. Being aware of this energy investment, a leader may help their people stay engaged by offering breaks in tension.

Great work everyone, recapping the conditons of both sides of this argument it is clear there are important details to consider here. I would invite everyone to continue to have an open mind, and for now let's take a break and come back in a couple of days.

As a leader or facilitator, we may be able to use our authority or offer those who have authority some ease for the group by stating simply that the conversation is important, that what matters most is we can move forward as a team, and that this is not about "being right" but "being clear and unbiased." In these cases, a leader's opportunity is to help manage the emotional impact of working in tense moments by offering some relief. That relief could come in the form of validation.

Moreover, managing tension isn't about avoidance but understanding when and how to use it constructively. Sometimes, the tension may stem from personal biases or unexplored ideas. Leaders can shift their approach from confrontation to coherence by recognizing these moments. It's about moving the energy in a beneficial direction for the team and the organization.

Culture crafting for tension

One effective strategy is to foster a culture of mutual respect and active listening. When team members feel heard, and their ideas are valued, even if they differ from the majority, it creates a more open and creative environment. This approach helps in easing tension by ensuring everyone's perspective is considered. Leaders can promote this mindset by offering a perspective that creates a sense of intellectual safety. Leaders willing to ask for help and invite feedback on their ideas set an example for others to become comfortable with.

Learning to see these situations differently

When approached with curiosity and an open mind, tension can catalyze growth and innovation. This challenges leaders and their teams to think differently, explore new possibilities, and engage in meaningful collaborations. By embracing tension as a natural and necessary part of the decision-making process, leaders can guide their organizations toward more dynamic, inclusive, and successful outcomes.

Sources of Inspiration

I referenced people I admire, like Dave Snowden. I would recommend spending some time with his lectures and The Cynefin Company:


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