Could Tension be the fuel of high performance?

By Sonia Tallarida

Have you ever noticed how in a team, there are points of tension and points of energy? That there are times that there is an easy harmony where people are able to express themselves comfortably, and times when the opposite is true?

You see this effect in high-performance athletes, where they are working to increase the strength of their bodies by introducing just the right amount of tension into their physical training to create greater strength. They know that by focusing on and resolving that tension, they reach higher performance states overall. They don’t avoid tension – they seek to create it.  At just the right level for a higher performance.

Just like an athlete, a team has its own signature “tune” or harmony where everything hums along at a high performance and high satisfaction state – but so often, a team drops out of that harmony and needs a bit of a tune-up. But where do you start?

You should focus on two points 1)the points of strength and natural ability and skills within the team and 2/ the “unresolved tension” that exists within the team. These are the key performance conversations that nobody is looking at, yet which underpins every problem and every possibility a team has.

Unresolved tension may sound like something discussed with a therapist rather than an organisational dynamics consultant; however, there are some very structured reasons as to why unresolved tension is limiting the potential success of your team.

Understanding why we exist

If we think about the very notion of an organisation and why it exists, it was created to limit liability, to ensure the survival of the people in it, the people who own it, and the people who benefit from it. This then leads to profits, limited accountability, and the establishment of various structures and systems to govern how an organisation operates.

In addition, we have the people we attract to work within our organisation. We want high performers who are passionate about the organisation and that naturally want to consistently contribute the most they can.

Just like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from grade school, the base of the triangle starts at survival, the essential requirement for all organisations. The highest point of the triangle is focussed on contribution and that’s where your people are mostly operating or at least where they desire to operate. This inconsistency between the survival and the desire for your people to contribute the most that they can is what drives an emerging source of tension.

To try and minimise this disconnect, organisations often create corporate values, purpose statements and mission statements. Clear structures are put in place to hold your people to a higher level of expression because, we know if we can operate at that level, the organisation will flourish both from a cultural and a profitability perspective. However, this actually results in tension between what an organisation wants to deliver and how governance is structured.

Lets look at some examples of tension and the very real ways they show up in organisational problems

#1. Lack of innovation and creative solutions

Say nothing…

Have you ever been in a meeting where you thought about saying something, but then you’ve paused and decided not to contribute. Upon looking around the room you can also notice that there’s five or six other people also refraining from providing their input into the discussion. You get the polite “nods” just counting time.   This avoidance is evidence people are feeling the tension between what they’re being asked to do to make the company flourish, the methods governing their behaviour and their desire to contribute. So to resolve this tension in this case, they say nothing.

# 2. Slow to act… even when everyone (appears to) agree…

Or…. Have you ever had the experience where you have actually said something in a meeting, with the right people, with the right authority you’ve collaboratively agreed on an action to be implemented to support your organisations future? Everyone’s agreed to it, it’s definitely ready to be implemented and then you wait and wait, and wait some more. You find yourself feeling the tension as you wonder ‘what is going on, and why aren’t people doing anything’? Although you’ve been asked to deliver, you are restricted in your willingness to contribute because you are unsure if you have the courage to stand up against the system. To do things differently and potentially ruffle some feathers, to change the way things are done. So, in order to resolve the tension of not knowing, you engage in very reasonable degrees of conversation, relegating the problem until obtaining death by consensus, and in this case, it’s death of the decision, often what were good decisions.

# 3 Loss of talent or not seeing the impact of investment in talent programs…

Have you ever stopped to consider why your talented people choose to leave your organisation? You work hard to get them in the door, you’ve got a talent program in place, you’ve got people who know what they’re doing, your talent programs support top talent to perform at their best, but they still leave. Even though your programs support talent by feeding their desire to contribute more and more. With every piece of investment you’re feeding knowledge and as a result your talent wants to contribute to assist the organisation to flourish. But what often fails to be addressed is the systems and the mechanisms in the organisation that mandate that people stay at the base on the triangle. 

It is our hope that talented, passionate employees will somehow drag us above the mediocrity that we’re seeing in the organisation. But the reality is as long as they remain individual contributors, this simply isn’t possible. As much as they try, they will eventually resolve the tension and leave, looking for another organisation that will embrace their higher values and desire to express themselves freely.

#4. Viral Underperformance

By not nurturing talent and changing the systems and mechanisms of your organisation those that have the desire to contribute at the higher level leave, leaving you with employees who are comfortable with the status quo, flourishing in the pathway of mediocrity. They don’t feel ENOUGH tension because their values are cohering beautifully with the survival messages that they are receiving from the baseline systems and mechanisms that govern every piece of work they carry out, in every conversation that they have. They have no desire to contribute at a higher level creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of perpetual mediocracy. And no one is requiring them to change. They are rewarded in underperformance by avoidance of tension.

#5. Too much bureaucracy or constant restructures

It is important to remember that there are a lot of good people in your organisation who want to do what they can to resolve the created tension. As humans we are created to resolve tension, and it’s part of a survival mechanism to resolve problems or “grey areas”. However, this urge to resolve tension often leads us to think people aren’t doing the right thing, so often a decision is made to create more rules and more structures in an attempt to resolve the tension. 

The accidental outcome of this well-meaning behaviour, is that there is a greater loss of freedom and choice. We are essentially pushing the organisation DOWN the hierarchy of needs, instead of up.  We create more of the very problem we are seeking to remove. It is the exact opposite of what is needed and resulting in re-inventing more survival based mechanisms to regulate a problem that is perceived to be about rules and survival, but in fact it is about the ability to contribute and the ability to manage the tensions when we’re in the gray zone. 

#6 The unintended impact of rank and power

As you sit and reflect on this thinking yes, I see that, take some time to think if you also see it in your own organisation. And what are you doing to create that? How could you resolve these tensions? Are some of these tensions occurring right under your nose , but you just are blinded to them by your rank and power?

When operating at a senior level, your higher level of authority doesn’t see you experiencing the degree of tension others within your organisation may experience on a daily basis. Often you are more engaged with the conversations around where you’re going, what you plan on doing and choosing how to contribute. Employees often provide a filtered perspective to us because they are in survival mode, trying to resolve the tension they are experiencing. Employees don’t want to introduce more tension so they often filter what they say, resulting in you basing your assessment based on limited data, a position no leader wants to find themselves in. In effect the more senior your role, the less unfiltered honesty you will receive.  

Case study –

An organisation merged several entities together to create a new business. Based on the strong brand presence of all of the entities the organisation should have been dominating the market and producing strong results. Instead they were producing positive results, but not meeting expectations and they knew they could do a lot better.

When looking into the results there were some key opportunities for improvement. There were fundamental shifts in market operations and employees had to think very differently across borders – not country boarders, but instead business unit borders.

It was clear that employees were thinking about their own teams first and not being focused on working with other areas to drive greater all round success for the organisation. We needed to determine what was causing the tension and why it was continuing to recur. Upon reflection it was pretty obvious…

The executive was able to articulate a very clear vision for the business, including the innovation that they were committed to, enabling the vision to become a reality. They were supported by a senior leadership team who understood the vision and were able to make it meaningful for their respective teams – providing the “what“ and “why”.

However, it was clear there were a lot of well meaning, very loyal employees who felt a disconnect between the vison for the organisation and their ability to contribute at the level they wanted to. They felt their new innovative ideas were not gaining the traction they required, with infighting and hierarchical structures limiting the opportunity for their ideas to succeed.

There was also a lot of protectionism of the old ways of working. Employees remained very loyal to their leaders within their business unit of origin, not allowing that loyalty to jump the line and look for opportunities to work beyond their teams as one big team to drive the next level of success.

It is important to remember that this organisation was performing, year on year, producing better results. So arguably, there was no reason to fix anything. However, every year targets were extended, it was clear that if they kept doing things the same way, it was only a matter of time before they began to limit their growth.

So, although it was clear change was required, it wasn’t clear what needed to shift. With further discussion the organisation highlighted four key areas that they beliwved required focus.

1.      There was a sense that it was something to do with leadership, but exactly what it was remained a mystery.

2.      Employees were not crossing lines of business to innovate, even though they were being asked to, and so they knew they had to focus on driving collaboration. 

3.      They also noticed there was a lot of deference and loyalty shown to leadership and management. Although this can appear to be a positive, especially for the leaders, it can also mean employees are blindly aligning with their trusted leaders and going along with the status quo instead of challenging the norm and providing new ideas. As shown in the triangle model – these people are stuck in the tension of survival mode.

4.      Each year there would be a lot of really hard work done, but then there was always a scramble at a certain times of year to quickly ensure certain results were obtained, during which time a lot of micromanagement and non-values driven behaviours would start to appear.

So the key question was where to focus first…

To stretch the organisational performance to the next level there was a need to determine what tension was occurring so it could be minimised. What we found were some very clear symptoms of survivalism. We had people being loyal to their individual business unit rather than to the outcome of the whole organisation. We also discovered that employees believed it was best to say what was acceptable rather than what was right, illustrating a lack of courage driven by a fear of rejection, another example of survivalism mentality. The final example of survivalism mentality that we found there was a perception that dollars trumped everything, it was perceived that even if you died trying to deliver that dollar that would be valued more an anything by the company.

When first briefed by the organisation we identified three perceived issues.

1.      The organisation was sure that the issue was a people related one which is so often the belief, but not the reality. 

2.      There was an issue in the way that people were showing up at work, which is great. As a result, they decided to send people on leadership training. A logical thing to do if the people are the problem – train them and then support them to embed their learning following the training

3.      They believed the issue could be outsourced, that they could send people away and have them think differently and then come back in and behave differently without fundamentally changing anything about the system at all. So the rules, the processes, structures, and the regulations, not only would stay in place, but there was a concerted effort to make them even tighter.

What in fact was the issue was that they were starting to do was to solve the wrong problem. When looking at the real sources of tension emerging, that were blocking people from expressing their capability, we knew they wanted to bring to the table it was clear it was due to bit of an epidemic in corporate culture.

There was an executive team who’ve spent a lot of time valuable time off site together, thinking individually and collaboratively about a vision and mission, goals and the structures that are needed to support those and they were clear on them. The executive team are also connected with the board and the chair, all of whom have clarity and agreement in terms of the way forward. These conversations and presentations were then shared to the level below and that was good because the senior leaders were also clear on what they needed to do and why. But what was missed during these discussions and presentations was the removal of their individual business unit filter. Filters always emerge in organisations involved in survivalism. So for all of the leaders involved, the filter started to occur that said, ‘this is how we translate these for our business unit’. That’s powerful, right, because you want people to know how they’re going to contribute from where they are right now. Yes, but notice what happened next, as one of the leaders started to interpret the meaning of discussions and presentations to their teams explaining the what and why to their own teams, they of course, introduce their own individual filter of what this means for the leader and how they think based on their knowledge of what is going on and the business unit how the information should be translated. But notice what is missing…

As well intentioned as a leader is, they are actually starting to engage people with where they should be focusing, therefore starting to create small fiefdoms of loyalty to the person presenting the information.

The leader isn’t being clear in outlining the why of the strategy – what the issue is and why we need to resolve it. Often middle level managers believe they know what they are doing and that the business is on track. They don’t really understand their problem. They don’t get it and they don’t own it. Resulting in your very well developed and crafted strategy not being implemented or if it is, it’s being implemented slowly or in a slightly skewwhiff fashion or in a very siloed manner. Which is precisely what was happening for this organisation.

After working with the organisation we identified the most important area of focus to drive future growth was determining ‘how we resolve the tension that’s coming in like gravity from all around them from as a result of the system they work within’?  It was clear they had conflicting messages – an official corporate message saying be creative and innovative to ensure we can be the best we can be as well as unofficial messages reinforcing the need to operate within defined structures using limiting processes.

So how did they resolve that tension?

New types of conversations were required with their peers which included the creation of a new subsystem in which people were able to step up the ladder safely and contribute at higher levels. They needed to be able to practise these conversations in their day to day role and to see the positive impact and feel supported by their peers who they trust. By taking this approach when they returned to their day to day role, that learning was not lost because it was encoded into the DNA of the team, leading to a fundamental change in the culture.

The reason why people aren’t speaking up to provide their own views within the system is because they’ve been given no space to make meaning.

Often the focus is on mid-level managers and upskilling them. However, the reason we do that is to get them to make meaning with each other. We build a degree of courage and expressiveness. We set them up like little squat teams – like little bands of resistance, because when they come back into the office energised and passionate to take up their role in the system differently, they suddenly introduce some tension of their own. This productive tension exerts tension upwards toward the leaders of the organisation. 

Most leadership training only focuses on the downward tension.

Leadership training needs to be much broader in order to effect change. By firing up subsystems you will stop the source of the tension being outsourced to mid managers and instead disperse it across the whole company. Focussing on what the organisation is doing or not doing that is contributing to the unproductive tension these people are experiencing.

Even though we have aspirations of empowering our team, and we’re glad that they now shifting and finally pushing back with tension, what’s going to happen is they’re going to shake our own routines and our own habits.

Some leadership programs are more like a sheep dip station, where you send employees out as individual leaders, they learn some stuff and they come back in. What’s often not incorporated is the piece where that meaning making is applied, similar valuable insights and key learnings you gain on your leadership off sites.

As a result, upon returning from leadership training people often change for a little while, but then there’s fade and everybody expects the fade, including their staff. Everyone knows if they wait long enough they’ll stop. The other thing that happens with that fade is even if the individual is really fired up, that’s two days outside of the system. What’s actually happening inside the system they are still getting lots of messages from the people above them, around them and below them from the systems that interact with every single day to say ‘stay the same don’t change’ so it requires a massive amount of energy and effort to change the system, extra energy most people don’t have.

In this example the problem was employees were asked to operate at a higher level of values and contribution, but then were once again returned into the cage of a survivalist environment.

The impact was almost immediate. There was a banding together of people in a desire for a new standard on how to behave and what they would no longer tolerate or be a party to. They worked together with this new standard and applied it instantly to their meetings and decisions. The ceo commented the next week “what have you done? Our leaders have finally stepped into a leadership role I have never had so many direct and valuable conversations with people I never even noticed before! We have an amazing team of leaders here!”

Naturally not everyone was happy – those who wanted to continue playing political football found it quite intolerable and several key execs left. At first there was some panic about this – but it was shown over time that their choice to leave liberated a whole chain of new behaviours and outcomes. And the company was refreshed. 


How would you like to engage in honest conversations that let you reset your standards as a team? It’s possible … when you know where to look. We’d love to show you how. 

The journey starts today.

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