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Embracing Natural Tensions

Workplace tensions can benefit an organization when viewed and managed correctly.

Tension can contribute to progress.
Tension can contribute to progress.

Leadership roles are some of the most rewarding and challenging positions a person can experience. The difficult parts of the job, though, often stem from tension. Let’s face it – people are complex beings who inevitably disagree in group settings.

This inevitable friction can either crumble systems and relationships or it can strengthen them. Strong leaders don’t operate in fear of tensions nor do they shy away from them. Instead, they expect and welcome these conflicting situations as opportunities for growth.

Tensions in nature

In the natural world, tensions are triggered from what we call feedback loops. This is information from the external system that something needs to be released to evolve. These feedback loops fuel adaptation and the creation of new species. Nature is full of moving, interdependent systems, where the behaviors of one species impacts all others in an ecosystem. As behaviors change, balances shift and tensions arise.

These tensions are what create new possibilities for life. In this way, nature is able to experiment and adapt. And this giant network of circular cause-and-effect relationships creates a dynamic system that continually changes form.

Innovation brings excitement along with tension

Just as in nature, tensions are necessary for change and progress in our organizations. In fact, it’s where creativity takes flight. Sure, everyone wants to discover the next big industry idea. But that kind of accomplishment doesn’t come without friction (or natural tensions).

Without challenges to the status quo, new ideas wouldn’t exist. We would become complacent and unmotivated to improve. If we could just learn to change our perception, tensions would feel less tense and seem more like opportunities.

Getting comfortable when things get tense

Granted, embracing tension is a bit easier said than done. The discomfort and potential relationship strain that often comes with tense situations make them all the easier to dread and avoid.

Changing your perspective takes a conscious effort. In meetings with teams and individuals, it means exploring different viewpoints with an open mind. That’s the only way to challenge “groupthink” and discover the possibilities of new ideas.

Opposing perspectives also help us recognize some of the flaws and negative consequences we may not have considered in our own ideas. As leaders we should strive to create a culture that welcomes tensions and disagreements. With practice, you will start associating tensions with opportunities for positive change instead of stress or resistance.

Modeling acceptance and a growth mindset

As a leader, the changes you want to see in your workplace culture can be greatly influenced by the examples you set with your behavior and actions. If you want your team members to feel comfortable voicing opposing views, share your own processes for decision-making and project planning. Include thoughts you dismissed and others you changed as an idea grew.

Encourage and acknowledge perspectives that challenge yours as well. You can also place value on tensions by revisiting previously reached solutions and goals to challenge systems that may no longer be efficient after time has passed.

Effective leaders don’t recognize this kind of reflection, sharing and adaptation as weakness. They understand that they, too, are growing and that welcoming disagreement can inspire necessary change from within their organizations.

An open mind and a forward outlook

In nature and in business, individuals and systems are in constant movement. The lasting success, relevance and long-term health of your business depends on its ability to evolve. And you can give that evolution a nudge by encouraging opposing views.

With innovative possibilities uncovered, your organization will be able to move in a natural direction of progress. Your staff will also feel more empowered and valued. To grow as a leader and as an organization, let your guard down, keep your mind open and harness the power of conflicting ideas.

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