I used to think that tensions were problematic in a team or organization. Over time, I realized that good decision-making and innovation depend on tensions. That is when I started to reframe my thinking about the relationship between tensions and possibilities. Any innovative idea will require people in a team to disagree with each other and challenge preconceived notions. This will generate tensions between people and their ideas. If we aren’t willing to live with tensions, we will regulate our organization to safe ideas that don’t rock the boat.

Tensions are natural in networked systems

Nature is filled with tensions. One of nature’s lessons that reflect the nature of tension is embedded in dynamic equilibrium. Nature is a networked system. It is filled with interdependent relationships that are always in movement. If something occurs to shift the behavior of one species, it will impact other species in an ecosystem. These interdependent cause and effect relationships continually shift the dynamic balance in nature. It also causes tensions between species and plant life that create new possibilities and shifting relationships. This is the nature of how a networked interdependent ecosystem works.

Tensions and possibilities

Good decision-making requires a team to explore different perspectives in relationship to the topic at hand. If we all look at the decision from the same point of view, we will miss possible unintended consequences of our choices. I have been in situations where decisions seem perfectly rational only to realize how problematic the decision is once others outside our “group think” see the choice. Their outside perspectives will look at a decision and see the problems that our team missed, because we didn’t not invite tensions and disagreements into our decision-making process.

Tensions can be promising

Given the negative consequences of not being able to welcome tensions in a team, one would think that welcoming tensions would be a key leadership capacity. Organizational leaders need to see tensions, not as problematic, but related to the quality of our decisions and directly related to the level of innovation that emerges in our organization. If we don’t welcome tensions and see the existence of tensions as something that is related to innovation, then we won’t be able to harvest the possibilities and promises embedded in the opposition. 

Welcoming tensions

Organizational leaders can create conditions that are conducive to tensions by inviting different points of view into their meetings with teams and individuals. Sometimes organizational cultures reinforce agreeing with the boss. This might be good for the leader’s ego, but it certainly isn’t good for the long-term health of the organization. If an organization is filled with “yes-men” eventually the organization will fail due to the absence of disagreement. The morale of staff will diminish because they will see the bad decisions but feel unable to speak against what clearly is a decision that doesn’t serve the organization, its customers, or position the organization well with the external environment.

To welcome tensions and disagreement, leaders need to develop their emotional intelligence. They need to be able to manage their emotions, so they don’t become defensive with feedback that disagrees with their point of view. They also need to learn to manage their egos and give permission directly to their staff to challenge their point of view.

Effective leadership requires us not just to know our business, it also requires us to know ourselves and be able to manage our emotions, so we don’t shut down tensions in our organization. Imagine an organization today that doesn’t continually innovate. Can that organization last in an environment that is constantly changing? I believe the capacity to adapt to changes and disruptions require us to rethink tensions and see them as promising instead of problematic.

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2019) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net