HR manager Jake and Chief Financial Officer Robert constantly fight. They don’t agree on anything. When Jake is asked about Robert, he calls him a robot without a heart. When Robert is asked about Jake, he describes him as a difficult person who is constantly picking on him and always resists his suggestions. The tension between the two doesn’t only affect the atmosphere in the board room, but has also spread to their departments. Whenever someone of the HR and Finance department needs to work together, they first have to present their findings to Jake and Robert before they can start executing them. This has slowed down the operations a lot. Many people in the company, even outside the HR and Finance department, experience this as a difficult wade through mud instead of an easy walk on the pavement.
Account manager Jeffrey has had a couple of very slow months acquiring new customers. Since this affects his paycheck, he experiences a lot of stress from it. One day he storms into a meeting of the marketing team and shouts out: “Why are you giving me such lousy leads? I can’t do anything with them!”
The majority of secretary Manuela’s work consists of putting data from paper survey forms into a database. However, the past three weeks she has been processing less forms than usual. Her manager notices this. He also got alerted that at this pace the deadline won’t be met, which gives him stress. He asks Manuela what is going on. She answers that her wrist hurts pretty badly and that she needs to give it a rest every 20 minutes.
These are a few examples of common situations in the workplace. Tension is felt a lot. Since tension isn’t a nice feeling our default strategy is to avoid it, ignore it, push it away or project it on something or someone else. We don’t want this energy, so we don’t allow it or we want to get rid of it.
However, when we do that, we miss opportunities. We miss opportunities to grow as a person, as a team, as a department or as an organization.
Tension is actually only pointing to something that is not in flow. When we change our perception of tension and consider it as a pointer to a deeper root or towards a solution instead of a problem, beneficial changes can happen.
Let’s look at the examples again.
When Robert was asked when their relationship started to be so difficult, he couldn’t remember. Jake on the other hand, knew exactly the date and circumstances. Six years ago, there was an unexpected and urgent board meeting. It was on the afternoon of day of his 10-year wedding anniversary. To celebrate Jake had booked a hard-to-get dinner table in a famous restaurant, months in advance. He had been looking forward to this evening since then. During the meeting Robert went deeper and deeper into the numbers of the company and asked every board member detailed questions regarding costs and budget. The result was that the meeting ran two hours longer and Jake didn’t make the dinner. He was very disappointed and blamed Robert. When Robert was presented with the facts, he also remembered the meeting because it was indeed an exceptional occasion. However, he didn’t recall Jake mentioning anything about his 10-year anniversary dinner. He added that if he had been aware of the situation, then he would have asked Jake about the numbers of the HR department first so Jake could have made the dinner. When Jake was asked about this, he admitted that he hadn’t told Robert that he had booked that table. When they both understood what the root of their conflict was, it was almost solved immediately. As a result, things went smoothly again in the board room, between the HR and Finance department and in the rest of the company as well.
In this case the tension between Jake and Robert pointed to a misunderstanding. Once that was cleared up, flow and growth could be restored.
The background of Jeffrey’s situation was that he got indeed less than optimal leads from the marketing team. What Jeffrey forgot, was that he refused to give input for the creation of customer profiles. In a session with a coach it appeared that this reminded him of the homework when he was a kid and that he got bad grades for. In order to avoid reliving the pain of ‘bad grades’ again, Jeffrey chose to not give input.
In this case the tension that Jeffrey felt (small paycheck) was actually a pointer to a pain from his childhood. When he was able to see this, he worked on this issue with a coach, delivered the input to the marketing team and was back on track with regard to acquiring new customers.
After a doctor’s visit Manuela was diagnosed with RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). Her wrist was hurting severely because it was in the same position day in day out. The advice was to do other work or find another job. Since her manager didn’t want to lose her because she was a fine team member, he needed to find another solution. A few days later, scanners and OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software were installed. In that way Manuela nor her colleagues had to do the dull work of inputting the data anymore.
In this case the tension (stress from the manager regarding the deadline and the physical stress of RSI) pointed to an outdated way of working and opened the way for more efficient processes.
Not only can growth be restored or accelerated, but it becomes a lot more fun to work together. When tensions are detected right away, they don’t get the chance to branch out to other people or teams like in the examples of Jeffrey and Jake and Robert. Or they don’t get the chance to linger on for years like in the example of Jake and Robert.
Many customer service agents are under a lot of stress because they have to deal with unsatisfied customers. Those customers are sometimes so frustrated that they first need to vent before they can even explain what their problem is. They need to get rid of their tension first. If customer service agents were more trained in compassionate dealing with customer complaints, less burnouts and less resignations would be the consequence. They would enjoy their work more. And when they would be facilitated in detecting and logging patterns in complaints, the company might be able to more optimally streamline their processes or detect the need for new products or services.
An example from my own life goes back to August 2008. It was the moment that Groups were introduced on LinkedIn. Until that moment LinkedIn was more like a directory of people. But from that moment on, interactions became possible. My company at that time, Networking Coach, had added several online business networks to the strategy of our clients besides offline networking. Until that moment, LinkedIn only came third in our list behind Ecademy and Xing. But from August 2008 on that changed. I felt the positive tension that huge things were going to happen. So I bought every book that was available about LinkedIn. At that time there weren’t many though. And they also just focused on the features and weren’t addressing the strategy and attitude that was necessary to be successful with LinkedIn. The result was that I decided to write a book about LinkedIn myself. It became a huge success: the book became an international bestseller and Networking Coach became LinkedIn’s first official training partner in the world.
Another example is that of Slack, the workplace messaging app. Not many people know that they were first a gaming company, called Tiny Speck, that created the massively multiplayer game Glitch. They shut down Glitch in 2012 and then started further developing the messaging tool they used internally. Because they looked at the tensions they were experiencing, they were able to make the transition into a wildly successful company.
In other words, when a new perception on tension is embraced, a pointer instead of a problem, organizations might suddenly face a bright future! Conflicts are turned into growth opportunities and harmonious high performing teams are created along the way.
What also helps to shift the perception of what tension is, is to look at Brian Robertson’s definition (the author of Holacracy): Tension is the feeling we get when we sense a gap between what is now and what could be. When we perceive tension as a neutral fact that just points out where the opportunities for growth are, working together reaches a new level.