The Myth of Healthy Tension

Kimber Lockhart
May 18, 2016 · 4 min read

Multiple perspectives tend toward better business decision-making. Technical complexity competes with user impact and business goals, and out of that battle emerges something great. That’s where we got the myth of “healthy tension.”

Today, “healthy tension” describes the relationship between product management and software engineering, or perhaps sales and marketing. Each group has specific incentives that overlap or conflict with each other (like the age-old debate between shipping quickly and delivering with quality). In theory, when team members of different roles make decisions, the tensions that arise result in better outcomes. I find in practice it’s not so simple.

Photo by Dieter Drescher, Creative Commons

Diversity of opinions is certainly important, but is tension between roles necessary to achieve great results? I think we can do better. Labeling role tensions as “healthy” excuses a lot of very unhealthy team behavior. It excuses team members from thinking outside their functional perspective. Those who lose the debate end up resigned or as though they don’t have a voice. This “healthy tension” results in a phenomenon any three-year-old can name: hurt feelings.

Hurt feelings are costly. They slip in and steal motivation to make an impact. They reduce listening, increase interrupting, and get in the way of the above and beyond. Think about it: did you want to put in the extra effort last time your feelings were hurt at work?

But that battle does not need to be between us. It can be within us. What the traditional notion of healthy tension gets wrong is that it pits team members who do different jobs against each other. The kind of tension that drives great results is not the kind of tension that exists between team members, but the tension that exists within each person. “How do I balance all these competing factors to do what is right?”

By surfacing debate as thoughtful team members rather than antagonists, we can make tradeoffs based on a full understanding of the issue at hand, rather than resorting to whichever role is the loudest or most powerful in an organization.

To build toward this, we must take two steps. We must build and cultivate teams of broad perspective, and we must stop excusing tension as healthy.

Building team of broad perspective

To achieve great results without healthy tension requires a team with broad perspective. Team members need to not only see their own functional perspective, but have the intellectual curiosity to understand the full picture.

Hiring To start, you need to hire the right people. Here, you’re looking for:

  • intellectual curiosity
  • mistakes that lead to learning
  • ability to examine a problem from multiple angles
  • excellent conflict resolution skills
  • team over ego

I believe when we expect tension between roles it reflects a deep misunderstanding of what we should expect of people we hire. We must move beyond this and hold our standards high.

Exposure Once you have a team in place, you must regularly expose your team to your purpose (see Sense of Urgency vs Sense of Purpose). Provide the transparency team members need to make the right decisions.

Affiliation To avoid unhealthy tension, it’s important your team members feel like part of the same team. Feeling like part of the same team is a finicky thing — it’s hard to create but important to sustain. Early stage startup employees will always say they are on [startup name]’s team, not that they are on the sales team or the design team. Your challenge is to keep the holistic affiliation as you grow. Build it into your process. Make it part of how you do what you do.

Recognition What gets rewarded gets repeated. Make an extra effort to recognize and thank individuals who surface multiple perspectives and participate in better decisions.

Values If we refuse to make decisions based on the limited perspective of our function, we must have some basis for our choices. In great organizations, that foundation is our values. If your values aren’t helping drive decisions, they aren’t the right values.

Stop excusing tension as healthy

We believe what we say all the time. “Healthy tension” is a common phrase in industry (don’t get me started on people as “resources”). Don’t allow the dialog. Simply stop saying it, and stop it if you hear it.

Tell new hires this language is no longer acceptable — at your company you respect your team members enough not to put them in a functional box, but to allow them a broader perspective.

Parting thoughts

As the employee with a radical perspective and as a referee finding common ground, I’ve certainly felt my share of tension on the job. At some level, if you do a good job surfacing discussion and debate, tension will periodically arise.

I believe, though, that healthy interpersonal and inter-team tension cannot be our sole mechanism for achieving a balanced perspective. It has too many negative side effects and can undermine our effort to build great teams and great organizations — organizations people are proud to be a part of and excited to contribute to every day.

Kimber Lockhart

Written by

CTO @ One Medical, Sr. Director Eng @ Box, Founder/CEO @ Increo, Stanford CS. Opinions are solely mine.

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