Surfacing tension in teams to boost collaboration and innovation

My peer recently told me that focusing on tension in my work makes me weird, different. “In a good way…” he added. It is common knowledge that even relatively direct Australians avoid coming across as conflict inducing and try to escape conversations about “tension”, “conflict” or “power”. It is also becoming incredibly difficult to bring up sensitive issues in the diverse workplace, in case the person you are addressing will get offended and report you for bullying or discrimination.

Photo by Sumit Saharkar on Unsplash

But coaching has been known to utilise challenge, as well as support, to facilitate change in individuals and groups. The internet is covered with articles on the need for us to disrupt ourselves and yet many coaches, let alone leaders, are not comfortable talking about using tension to fuel growth. It has bad, even authoritarian, connotations. To many, it sounds extreme, aggressive; and it can be misused by people who have bad intentions or have no idea about what they are doing.

So what is my purpose for engaging tensions and how does it shape how I think about them and how I approach them?

Working with tensions

Even after decades working in many countries, with people from all walks of life, I feel that many white people still look at me as if I were from “The Greatest Showman”, the strange being who defies “the normal”. And I am white! Some are attracted to my atypical, unexpected ways of looking at things, my thought-provoking and reset producing engagement, while others prefer to stay anchored in their safety zone, to continue adding to the knowledge they already have. Many say they embrace disruption but then, in reality, as a human race, we tend to preference safety, stability and uniformity and get anxious under ambiguous, shifting and messy circumstances (1).

Major impetus for change comes from helping the system to see and sense (2). Human systems are filled with tensions over conflicting needs, feelings, ideas and practices (3). We tend to question ourselves and have topics of concern to disagree on with others. For example, we have a deep need to define ourselves by our unique contributions and yet, very much long to be part of a bigger group and take on a collective identity (4). Often, we are subject to what we feel and see in ways unbeknown to us, therefore can’t do much about it. We just want to rid ourselves of the unease and hope others will do something to fix things for us. For example, you might want another team to be more transparent, or your colleague to be more productive because that would make you feel better.

Leaders say they want their teams to be ready for any challenge, to work collaboratively and to innovate fast. For this intent to materialize, they need to be able to understand what is truly in a way and how they contribute to the current process of interactions that leads to suboptimal outcomes. If we, as coaches, simply try to make leaders feel good about themselves, so we get more work, we are not doing them any justice. The more senior they are, the less feedback they get. It is incredibly hard to notice your blind spots if there are no inputs to produce insights and help them pay attention to things they have never attended to.

So in summary, I see my work as helping individuals and teams to surface tensions that are already there and help stay with those tensions until new ways of being and doing are found. Popular team building activities can seem like a useful way to get to know people and build friendships, but unfortunately, the tensions often resurface in a week, if not addressed. People, at the offsite, want to go along to get along, but eventually they must face their contested issues and work through them. It is meant to be challenging, all growth is.

Surfacing the tension that is already there

With a new challenge, we personally, our families and our teams can get stretched or even torn. I’m not even talking about a falling-out, sparring with words or refusing to talk to each other. Tensions rise when people have different opinions about how to pursue a goal or when they feel what they are being asked to do is beyond what they are ready or prepared to do. In other words, it is an everyday occurrence in even most sophisticated and advanced teams and organisations. It is not a sign of some kind of dysfunction. Just because your teams are not in an overt conflict, it doesn’t mean you could not harness tension to create better organisational outcomes, faster. For a long time, a compartmentalisation strategy has allowed many of us to suspend or supress anxiety producing issues, we believed to be, in favour of making progress. It has desensitized us and reinforced the perceived benefits of being tension averse. Now organisations want staff to display courage and to speak up, but there is little appetite to do so.

I help my clients to articulate what creates tension for them and between them, so they can hear themselves speak and see the bigger picture, clearer. As they talk about what feels right, authentic and true for them, I acknowledge their way of thinking and I ask them questions that disrupt their perspective, often leading to a change or expansion of their view. Safely but right to the point and it can feel tense. Think of exercising: stretching yourself in any way, leads to discomfort. During coaching, your sense of self might be shaken up and it can feel somewhat disturbing. Not every individual is open to the developmental experience that examines who they are and who they would like to be. Especially if they are accustomed to participating in training courses to add skills and knowledge to what they already know. Re-writing your (individual or collective) operating system is a different, and very powerful exercise, producing a lot of insights and “feel good” moments, when tension is released. It helps people to feel “refreshed, strengthened, curious, content, excited and connected” (5).

As an external coach, I believe I am better placed to surface tensions because of the anonymity I offer. Your and your team’s career does not depend on what you will share with me. By opening up, you have nothing to lose and plenty to gain. My performance and remuneration do not depend on how clients rank their meetings with me, so I am not worried about or focused on pleasing. I can concentrate on creating experiences that illuminate, disrupt, produce insights and embodied learning, ultimately benefiting the individuals, teams and their wider community. I approach my work with humility and respect, honoured by trust placed upon me, to lean into what is highly vulnerable with a deep sense of care, providing the psychological safety required.

Our capacity to work with anxiety producing issues

We all differ in how much tension we can process and our capacity to do so also varies depending on what else is happening in our lives. For example, one might not be able to write a report with music playing in the background, while others only take high stake jobs to feel truly alive. In other words, our tolerance for tension is distinctive to us and the unique profile of that tolerance emerges within a given context. What is tension rising for me, might not be tension rising for you, or at least not on that day.

My close collaborator once said to me: “Is it an Eastern Block thing to want to work on things that others find overly tense?”. I don’t think so… I’m drawn to having difficult conversations because they carry energy necessary to drive change and successful adaptation to challenges, we, as a diverse society, face. Of course, challenging, prickly, conversations create emotional labour for all involved. We are wired to seek connection and disagreements cause us to fear rejection and, ultimately, create social pain that could feel as powerful as breaking an ankle (6, 7). That is why there is a deep desire to avoid conflict, especially in the workplace. But to bridge the disconnect that is often present, we need to notice what creates it.

We cannot carry on telling ourselves simple stories about how others need to change, or we are doomed. “A group can only be truly transformed to the extent to which its members understand their fellow group members; they grasp the significance, implications, or importance of the information conveyed.” Fortunately, even short and purpose fit programs allow busy teams to reset, so they can use their own resources to build on the breakthroughs they achieved.

In summary

Our home and work life are filled with competing goals and ideas how to achieve them. The higher the stakes, the more anxiety producing conversations we tend to have. For rapid innovation, organisations need smooth collaboration that is also inclusive of divergent voices. The fastest way to enable this, is to help your leaders and teams to see how their current beliefs, assumptions and automatic behaviours might be sabotaging their efforts to achieve what they say they want to achieve. It can be confronting but that is exactly what is required for them to move beyond their blind spots. As a leader, don’t rush to find a solution to fix what appears to be a problem. The teams need to develop their collective awareness which will lead to learning and adjusting together, helping them to develop their own, more productive and enjoyable ways of interacting.

References:

1. Cavanagh, M., & Lane, D. (2012). Coaching psychology coming of age: The challenges we face in the messy world of complexity. International Coaching Psychology Review, 7(1), 75–90.

2. Scharmer, O. U.lab: Leading Change in Times of Disruption. Archived course, accessed on 4 November 2020 on edX: https://www.edx.org/course/ulab-leading-change-in-times-of-disruption

3. Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The leadership quarterly, 18(4), 298–318.

4. Brewer, M. B. (1991). The Social Self: On Being the Same and Different at the Same Time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(5), 475–482.

5. These words were shared by the participants at the end of my recent coaching program to increase collaboration between two teams (2020).

6. Berger, J. G. (2019). Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity: Stanford University Press.

7. Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. New York, Crown.