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May 12, 2022

‘Emma’ was popular, powerful but somewhat intimidating if you got on the wrong side of her. Several team members, including her boss, Harry, told me that she was also highly elusive, broke promises and would promise to one thing and then do another.

Off-site, and with Emma present, I ran a team feedback exercise. All those criticizing her in private revealed nothing in the exercise. So I invited Harry, the team leader, to comment. Surely he would confront the elephant in the room? Harry did speak, but he chose to do so for other people – ‘people find you less available’, he said. ‘Others have told me they find you hard to pin down’. I prompted Harry further. ‘Do you find Emma unavailable and hard to pin down?’ – to which he replied – ‘No, we’re working fine’. If the team leader couldn’t confront Emma, what chance did the rest have?

Destructive tension: Bad

Harry’s behavior illustrates the first of the two most common ‘destructive’ tensions. The first is leaving what has to be said, unsaid, even though avoiding short-term tension only intensifies long term tension (which is exactly what happened in this team as Emma continued to be elusive and uncooperative). The other type of course is the polar opposite, very aggressive interactions that end up with winners and losers or just losers.

I have found the ability to have challenging conversations and to hold others to account to be one of the toughest skillsets a team can acquire, especially in matrix organizations composed of multiple cross functional teams. It requires a fundamental belief that it is okay to have a challenging conversation with someone who you don’t formally lead and the necessary psychological safety to have that conversation and the technique to execute it well. This is some combination and it arguably explains why just about every team I’ve ever worked with has wanted to be better at it, cross functional or not.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Constructive tension: Good

Constructive tension (or ‘edge’ as GE’s Jack Welch called it), can be useful. It provides challenge and fuels creativity. It guards against ‘Group Think’ – a state characterised by complacency and insufficient internal critique. In an increasingly inter-connected world where collaboration is the name of the game, if we are unable to create constructive tension inside and outside of our teams, we’ll be less likely to influence, challenge standards, hold others to account or create change. In other words, without constructive tension we will generate less value.

Not only does HR need to facilitate good construction tension, it must foster it. It’s my belief there is a code to follow that science tells us maximizes the chances of creating constructive tension in a team. You just have to, know what it is and follow it. After all a bit of tension helps most teams perform better

So what’s this code? The foundations of constructive tension is the creation of ‘same page trust’. We create same page trust, a form of cognitive trust, when we share certain mental models with those with whom we are collaborating, specifically

  1. The purpose of our collaboration
  2. The goals we share
  3. The roles and responsibilities we have
  4. The plan we are working towards
  5. How we feedback together on progress
  6. The team behaviors we want to see from each other (our team norms or organizational values)

These six agreements form the first ‘Get Set’ phase of a unique 4 phase team development approach that has been designed for today’s teams operating in today’s extreme conditions: Get Set – Get Safe – Get Strong – Get Success.

Dissonance in any of these six explains the vast majority of relationship tension I’ve witnessed in a 25-year team coaching career. Scientific research also supports the contribution of cognitive trust to building inter-personal trust. Prevention is usually better than cure so your first step is to safeguard these alignments, build same page trust and thereby reduce opportunities for future destructive tensions.

Then move onto to building psychological safety, a state where people can say what they feel or think without fear of recourse. The science confirms that relationships built on vulnerability, empathy and reflection are much more likely to foster healthy collaborations which can better withstand negative feedback. Without psychological safety and high levels of emotional trust, negative feedback exchanged online or over the phone will likely create destructive rather than constructive tension.

Give people psychological safety to disagree

Success starts to happen when teams leverage all their accrued same page trust and psychological safety to move confidently into the ‘contact zone’ of constructive tension. It requires courage to enter this zone and a skill set to cope with it, but it’s worth remembering that tension is usually temporary, especially in relationships high in psychological safety.

The icing on the cake is the ability to describe rather than judge. Stating the facts by saying what you notice is far less emotionally provocative than arguing with opinions.

Feelings can, of course, be facts too. But saying how we feel is very different to saying how we feel ‘about’ something – which is simply an opinion masquerading as a feeling. ‘I’m feeling demeaned’ is very different to ‘I feel you are being demeaning’.

Veterans of the Apple Mac team learned that they could stand up to Jobs, but only if they used their domain expertise to push back with data and facts. Like Jobs, Bezos or Musk, formidable colleagues respect you if you stand up to them as long as you do it with facts and without too much emotion.