Tension--that is, the emotion that characterizes and sometimes leads to arguments and fights--is great for your business. It sparks innovation, fuels performance, forges trust and drives learning. 

But chances are that you're avoiding tension any cost. 

In fact, many leaders learn about tension in some part of the organization and think, "Maybe if I give this some time, it'll sort itself out."

Why would a leader do that? Because the brain's natural response to tension is to interpret it as a threat. Tension signals chaos, a profound lack of control, ambiguity and unpredictability. As such, your brain will do anything in its power to avoid, over-power or comply with it.

Yet the human brain actually needs tension to do its best thinking.

Energy within tension

Let me explain.

Inside every employee is a gap between what they want and what they are currently experiencing: a gap between their preferred vision and current reality.

What's the difference between the preferred future and the current reality? Tension. And what is right inside that tension? Energy.

As a business leader, you can help employees tap into this source of free energy. But it requires stepping into tension--which is, admittedly, not always easy.  

Stepping into tension is worth it (big time)

In my book Beyond Engagement, I share a true story about how a tense half-hour conversation resulted in extraordinary sales.

Robin was a leader in charge of customer experience at a large financial institution. Traditionally, relationship managers were tasked with making customer calls, but Head Office had recently moved that responsibility to customer service reps.

However, the customer service reps weren't making the calls. 

The leadership team assumed the reps either needed more training, or were resistant to change. But Robin suspected something else was in the way - so she and a colleague went cross-country to figure out the problem (talk about the potential for many tense situations!). 

In one office, they met Stacey. Stacey had been promoted to relationship manager, but decided to return to customer service to cut back on travel.

Due to her relationship management experience, Stacey was uniquely equipped to make customer calls. But she wasn't doing it--and it wasn't due to a lack of training.

So Robin asked Stacey a game-changing question: "What matters most to you in your job?" She discovered Stacey had two competing needs: to help clients, and to belong on her team. The source of tension? Stacey believed if she became the poster-girl for customer contact, her team would reject her. 

Robin asked some coaching questions, helping Stacey understand where her passion lay--serving customers in a way that would not alienate her teammates. 

The solution was simple: Stacey became a mentor to her co-workers.

Several weeks later, I got an email that I treasure to this day. Stacey's efforts had unlocked $7 million worth of business for the organization! 

Even more business benefits to tension

It's hard to top a $7 million increase in sales. But even if you don't experience the same amazing results as Stacey, your business can benefit greatly by stepping into tension. Consider the following:

  • No tension = no trust

Your brain only codes for trust when you go through relational tension with someone and come out the other side, having discovered you hold each other's interest in high regard. If you've never resolved tension with someone, your trust is untested.

  • No tension = no flow

In a "flow state," you're so absorbed that you lose track of time. Superb performance and moments of brilliance are the products of flow state. And flow is triggered by tension: the feeling of being stretched by an energizing challenge just beyond your current capability.

  • No tension = bland, unproductive meetings

Business writer Pat Lencioni makes a solid point in his book Death By Meeting: just like a good movie, you can't have a good meeting without conflict. The build-up of emotional tension and its resolution lead to more interesting, memorable, productive meetings.

It's time to reframe tension

There is no way to keep epic tensions from happening between employees and managers. But that's okay, because tension is not negative, nor toxic, nor to be avoided at all costs. 

In fact, tension represents a free pool of renewable energy that can drive results that matter most in your organization. 

And not only that: by addressing and confronting tension head-on, you save issues from becoming so calamity-based that they consume multiples of energy, time and mind-space from everyone in the organization.

In other words: it's time to begin looking at tension differently.

Published on: Jul 13, 2016
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