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How to create respectful tension for results

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Ken Thomas

How do words like, conflict, confrontation, accountability, debate and tension make you feel?

Uncomfortable? Sure! I don’t blame you. Nobody enjoys confrontation. If there’s someone who does, I would avoid him at all costs. On the other hand, I’d like to suggest there is a certain type of constructive tension that’s healthy in business. I call this “respectful tension.”

One of the definitions of tension is, “To apply a force to something that tends to stretch it.” Think about a rubber band between your thumb and finger. The harder you stretch it the further you can shoot it.

I must confess that I’m not afraid of the word tension. I’ve earnestly worked and preached the benefits of this type of constructive tension for the growth of a business. I’ve learned through the years that for any individual, team or organization to reach its full potential, it has to be stretched and challenged continuously to set and achieve lofty goals. I’ve also learned that leaders must understand and accept this responsibility or it won’t happen.

Align accountability with results

One way to describe the role of applying respectful tension is simply holding people accountable. It’s the role of the top leaders in any organization to hold themselves and their teams accountable. Accountable to what, though? This is where the challenge comes in. Holding teams accountable to unclear goals and expectations leads to unhealthy tension. If the only person that knows what you really expect is you, then most people will never measure up and our typical reaction to people that don’t measure up is to push them harder in hopes of getting better results. Pushing for results is counterproductive. Respectful tension allows leaders to pull people along, stretching them to perform at levels they never thought possible.

How can we develop a company culture where there’s just the right amount of tension while not being adversarial? The way to establish this balance is to to set clear expectations of success along with the development of simple dashboards to determine if we’re winning or losing. Obviously, this expectation should be set at a level that challenges the status quo. I believe that if you don’t want to do something big, it’s not worth doing. When leadership can point to performance dashboards and relate the metrics to the big picture, there’s an opportunity to create a healthy, respectful tension where the thinking and actions of teams and individuals can align with results.

If you want your organization to get farther than it’s ever been, set clear ideals of success that are lofty but attainable. Collaborate with your team to create commonality around this vision and the strategy to get there, build clear dashboards to determine if you’re winning or losing, build a culture that inspires the right actions and, finally, apply the right amount of respectful tension to help your team do something big!


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