Tune in to healthy tension

As a leader, you will be busy planning for a new phase in the return to work. You’ll be thinking about how to organise in ways that support your team members to perform at their best. Some organisations need some people to return in person, due to the nature of their work. Some will give the choice to their employees. Some will want everyone back in the office. New approaches to hybrid working are starting to emerge.

When uncertainty gives way to choice

It’s a hot topic. A recent study by the Work After Lockdown project confirmed the findings that around 75% of employees want to continue to work from home some of the time. The remaining quarter are evenly split: 13% want to work from home all the time and 12% want to return fully to their workplace. Behind this strong preference for hybrid working is the expectation employees now have for discretion and flexibility – to continue to exercise autonomy in the place and timing of their work. And it’s an expectation they’ve earned. 88% report that they get as much or more work done from home as they did in the office pre-lockdown. Leading effectively in the hybrid workplace isn’t an issue for the next few months. It’s here to stay.

You’ve been giving your team members high levels of practical and emotional support over this last year. And your extraordinary efforts are about to translate into the more formal job of defining what work looks like now for your team, redesigning roles to support your team members’ preferences and productivity, and reviewing the implications across all your people processes.

You and your team members will work through many questions, expectations, requests, experiments and reflections. And, given the scale of this change, the huge shift away from business norms, and employees’ wide-ranging preferences, you are bound to experience feelings of conflict as you seek to do the right thing for your team members, your organisation and its customers.

Conflict or healthy tension?

In my last blog, I recommended taking 5 minutes to listen to yourself – regularly. Why? So you can be better prepared to listen to your team members. To notice and challenge your assumptions. To acknowledge what is important to you and others. To recognise helpful and harmful patterns. And to anticipate others’ expectations. What questions do you have, and what questions might your team members have, as everyone considers a different way of working? What polarised thoughts, preferences and suggestions might you feel under pressure to reconcile and resolve?

I’ve recently been reading Tim Arnold’s book ‘The Power of Healthy Tension’. Here he describes polarity as “A situation in which two opposing ideas exist in seemingly impossible tension.” Drawing on Dr Barry Johnson’s work on Polarity ThinkingTM, Tim shares that polarised thinking underlies a higher purpose. When we acknowledge polar views and find a way to achieve healthy tension, we can serve a higher purpose.

From fixing the problem to managing the tension

How might this approach help us as leaders? What if the return to work was a healthy tension to be managed, rather than a problem to be solved? As an example, let’s imagine, that your higher purpose for your team is ‘to create an environment for growth and fulfilment’. Why this purpose? Because when your people grow and feel fulfilled, your organisation, service and product lines can grow and fulfil their purpose. And what tension might you encounter in working towards this purpose? The potential conflict between some team members who think and feel that returning to work in the office environment is essential, effective and efficient, and others who think and feel that working from home is possible, effective and efficient.

Managing the healthy tension between two polarised views requires us to listen. Listen to ourselves. Listen to others. Listen free from interruption and judgement. Listen with an open mind to learn what we don’t know. And it’s not easy. Listening like this takes care and effort. It demands a deeper honesty and authenticity from us as leaders. It asks us to sit a little longer in uncertainty, at a time when we feel desperate to get things clear and sorted. So let me share a few steps that can help you manage healthy tension as you listen: 

  1. Listen to yourself first. Understand your own thinking around a ‘crux tension’ – an issue that crops up for you every day. So our example might be the challenge of creating an environment that supports everyone’s growth and fulfilment when some team members are working from the office and others are working from home.
  2. Invite and embrace someone from the opposite pole to share their thoughts and views. Listen with an open mind. Reflect. Notice your bias or preference. What do you prefer about the side you choose? What do you fear or resist about the other side? What if you overdo your bias to the neglect of the other side?
  3. Ask each other what we gain (positive results) and what we lose (negative results) from each pole. Be mindful of the language you use. Rather than seeking a position of right or wrong, win or lose, consider the language of curiosity and acknowledgement.  Resist using the words “No”, “But” or “However” as you listen and learn more. And remember that what we gain from one pole is what we lose from the opposite pole. 
  4. Acknowledge there is a healthy tension between the polarity of both of your thoughts and ideas. Slow down to think afresh on the higher purpose you are seeking to fulfil. And reflect again on your own bias, on the blind spots each of you may possess, and on what is at stake for you and for others.
  5. Experiment with what you both learn. Capture the ideas that emerge from the outcome of 3 and 4 above. Turn those ideas into plans that you can put into action, test and evaluate. 

Listening for the higher purpose within every tension

Capturing and mapping the gains and losses of each pole is a key step in the process. It is here that we discover how we might benefit from the healthy tension that serves our higher purpose – in this case creating an environment for growth and fulfilment.

When we share our thoughts and ideas on the same topic, yet from different perspectives and polarities, it can generate unease and a sense of conflict – a problem to be solved. In contrast, when we position our thoughts as a healthy tension to be managed – and agree to listen to each other’s ideas free from interruption and judgement – we arrive at a more inclusive outcome, one which can generate fulfilment in service of our higher purpose. 

Thanks for listening!

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Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

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