“Is this a problem to solve or a tension to manage?”
- Andy Stanley
One of the concepts I reference most frequently in client meetings has to do with tensions versus problems. It was introduced to me by Andy Stanley at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit in 2010. One or more of our coaches likely reference it weekly in a client conversation. It has become part of the holy canon of principles we apply.
For some, the idea of healthy tension may be an oxymoron. They believe that if they have a healthy organization, there won’t be any tension. Many leaders actually believe that their ultimate job is to get rid of all the tension.
This can lead to passive-aggressive attempts to make everyone happy, versus pursuing what is truly in everyone’s best interest, which will likely not make everyone unilaterally happy.
With any piece of machinery there is a natural level of wear and tear from inevitable friction. The friction is what makes the machinery effective. The same is true with our opposable thumbs. Our thumb works against our fingers to create the tension needed to successfully grab hold of an object, be it a contact lens or a bowling ball.
Tension can be a good, even necessary thing. In these situations, the goal is not to eliminate, but merely minimize.
Conflicts need to be resolved.
Healthy tensions need to be managed.
Organizationally, trying to remove all of the tension is the equivalent of cutting off your thumb. It may remove all the pressure and tension applied to things, but it also dramatically eliminates your productivity and possibly your opportunity for profitability.
A certain amount of tension is actually necessary to achieve a successful organization.
There is a natural tension between excellence and resources. For example:
- A replacement contractor can achieve such a high level of craftsmanship in their work that they can’t profitably and efficiently finish their work.
- A sales team can set a higher level of expectations that procure the sale, but make meeting those expectations nearly impossible for the production team.
- Being adequately staffed to immediately handle customer flow in the busy season will likely mean you have idle staff in slow seasons.
Organizations that embrace this concept learn to quit wasting energy on trying to solve problems that can’t (and maybe shouldn’t) be solved. A new category is provided that allows a team to appropriate and diffuse unnecessary stress.
You might be asking yourself about the times you've experienced the destructive outcome of unhealthy conflict and tension. Stanley believes that this is a by-product of:
- Unhealthy people
- Poor leadership
As leaders, our job is to make sure all the information is on the table, that everyone is heard, and then help manage the tension toward resolution. Identifying a situation as a tension that you are choosing to manage tends to remove the emotional need for there to be a winner or a loser. Essentially both sides of any issue will have to give some ground to take some ground.
For the better good, I will need to give some ground to the other side.
With more significant positions and stronger personalities, we risk a Darwin-esque corporate survival of the fittest, instead of mining all the collective wisdom and opinion for the overall greater good. We typically know the sides of issues that particular people represent.
They need to be heard and you want to hear from them, but the acknowledgment of managing tension provides a framework and category to hold both sides in a healthy way that moves toward a better collective solution.
- Are you dealing with the same “problems” year after year, season after season?
- Did you ever think that they may be necessary tensions that need to be managed instead of problems to solve?
- What situations or people came to mind as you read about this concept?
- If you are interested in learning more, reach out for a conversation. We have filters to determine which is which and can help identify which employees are tensions or problems.