Tensions within your team? … Great!

Spanningen in je team? … Goed zo! Stanwick

Tensions within your team are often perceived as negative, and everyone has his own way of dealing with them: some would rather ignore them, and certainly don't want to name them, while others just want a quick solution and to get rid of them as soon as possible. Some people want to reflect on them first, and perhaps never get around to doing anything. But we do have one thing in common, and that is that tensions within the group are usually perceived as a (big) problem. The result is that this often leads to frustrations, resistance and confrontations, simply because we have different views about things. For the team, this usually means a lot of wasted energy, because everyone is trying to convince the others that they are right. But the real question is: is tension within a team really such a big problem?

And what is ‘tension’ anyway? The term refers to a feeling of stress or an unpleasant state of mind. The opposite of ‘relaxation’, a sense of calm. But tension within an organisation, group or team could also simply represent the difference between ‘how it is now’ and ‘how it could be’. This difference could be small or large; the greater the difference, the greater the tension. Seeing it this way can make tension into a neutral concept that gives us information about where we are now, and were we want to go to.

A concrete example: you are in a meeting and feel tense about how things are going. You may feel a difference between how it is now (“this meeting doesn't get us anywhere”) and how it could be (“why can't we just talk about the real problem”). An experience like this only becomes positive or negative when we stick a label on it, and that is usually a personal matter: do we see an opportunity for improvement, or do we only experience a problem and negative stress? A discussion also often arises as to whether the tension that a person experiences is real and correct. In some teams, everyone has to agree before something can happen, or it's sometimes up to the supervisor to see it and solve it. Moreover, knowledge workers struggle with tensions that are different from those of their colleagues who mainly carry out physical work. Tensions that relate to knowledge work tend to be more complex and take place inside our heads, we can’t even see them.

Or even better ... tension as fuel for continuous improvement?

In the new organisational forms of today, however, tensions are handled in a very different, constructive manner. Tensions provide a kind of information in which the reality gives us feedback: where we are now, and where we could be. As a result, we can start using tension to change something or to put something in motion, and it then becomes a motor for continuous change and improvement. Every team member becomes a sensor who can pick up and report tensions. A discussion about whether the perceived tension is real or not real becomes irrelevant – instead of arguing about it, we want to learn from it, and change something. No more negative or positive labels, simply a neutral source of information that offers opportunities for improvement.

Tensions are detected and discussed according to a predefined protocol, and the team decides whether to do something with them or not. In this way, a team evolves on the basis of progressive insight and continuous adjustment along the way. Perfection is no longer a necessity, but decisions must be ‘feasible’, and be sufficiently safe to be able to continue working. This creates a process of continuous improvement, with ‘tension’ as fuel.

Source: Getting teams done (Diederick Janse & Marco Bogers)

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