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May 5, 1995

Tension

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Change seldom happens without friction.

Establishing a new strategy is going to introduce changes all over your organization. It’s going to dislodge people from their routines and likely recombine some of them in different working teams. It’s going to pose new questions and expose new zones of uncertainty. A natural result of all this is the creation of hot spots of tension among some of your employees.
But here’s the thing about tension…
Some tension is destructive and some tension is constructive.
The first kind of hot spot—destructive tension—you want to put out with a hose as soon as it crops up. The second kind—constructive tension—you’re better off letting burn for a while, because this kind of tension can actually become a part of your execution of the strategy.
Are you prepared to accept constructive tension within your organization?
An old proverb says, “Iron sharpens iron.” In my experience, though, many people would prefer to sharpen iron with something softer, if they could. The heat and sparks that are created when two people grate upon each other in disagreement make them uncomfortable. But if you want an edge on your blade, sharpen your iron with iron.
William Wrigley Jr., a businessman whose name lives on in chewing gum and the Chicago Cubs’ ballpark, used to say, “If two people in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.”23 Learn to see debate and opposing points of view as important steps on the way to a new synthesis of agreement and action.
But of course you want the tension to be about the right things. If two people are at each other’s throats over the colors to be used in a new print ad campaign, that could be a waste of time and emotional capital. Better to have debates about big ideas. Are we going to expand into China? Is it time for an IPO?
The company leadership should set the ground rules for optimizing tension and guiding employees through conflict. Consider these commonsense approaches:
• Work on creating a reservoir of trust among the team members or partners.
• Teach people to become comfortable with honesty and directness.
• Don’t let employees use e-mail or social media to advance a disagreement. They should talk it out in person.
• Insist that they keep the debate focused on work issues. They should never let the conversation slide into personality issues.
• Assign someone to be the facilitator of a discussion or the blender of diverse views.
• Let the tension play out long enough but not too long.
Wildfire is one of nature’s ways of renewing the landscape. Without letting the fire of disagreement get out of control in your organization, learn to use it to the advantage of your strategy.

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