Monday, June 10, 2019

The Value of Dynamic Tension

Tsugitoshi, Tug-of-war between monkeys and farmer with his son, late 19th century, 
Minneapolis Institute of Art, 96.147.59, Gift of Leo A. and Doris Hodroff.

At the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting in May 2019, I was honored to take part in a panel with colleagues Kristin Prestegaard, Katie Ross, and Bryon Thornburgh. We titled our session “Museum Marketing and Technology: The Power Partnership”. Together, we riffed on how a partnership between marketing and technology empowers both to work together for the sustained success of the entire organization, especially when driven by a shared vision that includes ongoing and dynamic collaboration. We had fun, and I think we ended up learning a lot from each other while providing some interesting and provocative content for the attendees. One topic that came up was dynamic tension, as applied to workplace culture. In following up, I’m going to explore the concept of dynamic tension as a potential contributor to organizational chemistry and overall success. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s set a little more context.

Our sector, like many others, is situated within the knowledge economy. The nature of our work is not only information-based, but also consistently nonlinear, only partially predictable, networked, interdependent, and usually collaborative - it takes teamwork to succeed. These are some of the characteristics of a complex adaptive system. In a complex adaptive system, there are agents - individual units, in our case people - that are connected through ongoing cooperative interactions determined by common goals or needs. I’m not going to try to flesh out the full picture of complex adaptive systems or that idea’s origins in complexity science - besides, I’m nowhere near qualified to do so. I recommend that you dig into these topics though, they are fascinating. A good place to begin is Uhl-Bien et. al (2007) - note that references are listed at the end of this post. What I will explore here is the nature of people working closely together, the inevitable tensions that occur under those conditions, and how leaders can cultivate a positive dynamic tension mindset that circumvents workplace conflict and contributes to success.

A productive business in the knowledge economy is dependent upon information as a core commodity - that information could be data, or it could be stories & content, and in order to thrive our organizations depend on the creation of that knowledge and its role in finding paths to innovation. This stands in stark contrast to the top-down and bureaucratic business model of organizations in the past, which focused on repeatable procedures and controlled efficiency, and worked fairly well when applied to physical production. Many authors have written about this difference and the need to re-imagine leadership in the knowledge economy, arguing that the older model that focused on control and risk-aversion can be maladaptive and even potentially destructive for organizations today (e.g., Drucker, 1998; Manville & Ober, 2003; Whitehurst, 2015). One big question results: how can we actually lead a complex adaptive system, when we are facing unpredictable challenges, uncertain competitive landscapes, and ever-evolving interpersonal work relationships?

Enter Complexity Leadership Theory - a “model of leadership grounded not in bureaucracy, but in complexity”. Furthermore, “... the premise of complexity leadership is simple: Under conditions of knowledge production, managers should enable, rather than suppress or align, informal network dynamics” (Uhl-Bien et. al, 2007) - once again I encourage you to consult the source material, as I am only able to offer a surface summary of the concepts. As it applies to the issue of dynamic tension in the workplace, I’m struck by a phrase found in the very same paper, in which leadership is best when it “ … fosters complex networks by (1) fostering interaction, (2) fostering interdependency, and (3) injecting adaptive tension to help motivate and coordinate the interactive dynamic” [emphasis is mine]. As you can see, in order to maximize the effectiveness of a knowledge-based working culture, a leader not only must support the inherent networks and connections, but in fact must nurture an environment in which tension is allowed to occur. But haven’t we all be taught that tension is a bad thing?

Challenge: Tension and disagreement
Inevitably, smart people with different skill sets and job roles who work together in dynamic collaboration are going to disagree, whether it happens sooner or later.
How do we approach that, both as leaders and as participants?

Framing disagreement in the workplace: Two mindsets
Let’s look at two possible mindsets to understanding and utilizing dynamic tension in the workplace.

In the first mindset, disagreements are seen as natural phenomena. They should occur. Debate is interesting, and disagreements can lead to creative and innovative solutions. This represents a positive dynamic tension mindset.

For example, Jim Whitehurst (2015) has noted “The best ideas happen when teams hash things out … I love working, debating, and sometimes arguing with people to solve hard, complex issues”

In an alternative point of view, and the one that many of us have been raised to adopt, disagreement is seen as an attack on one’s integrity. In other words, when someone disagrees with me, it’s personal and aggressive. I feel defensive, angry, spiteful, and I suspect that there is a subtext or hidden agenda at work. Perhaps they are trying to make me look bad, or they believe that winning is the only thing. I firmly believe that I can’t back down or show any weakness, or I’ll get bulldozed. This describes a conflict mindset.

Origins of each mindset
A positive dynamic tension mindset is born of mutual respect, shared goals, a commitment to collaboration, and empathy. It also acknowledges the old adage that two heads are better than one - so active participation by both “heads” should inevitably lead to better outcomes.
A conflict mindset is born of mutual distrust, ongoing territorial battles, power politics, information hoarding, and simmering resentment over time. A conflict mindset is a defensive mindset, and it colors one’s perceptions of every workplace interaction so that one tends to see others as adversaries who are likely to do harm.

Risk is present in both mindsets
I’m sure it is not difficult to ascertain that I am an advocate for the positive dynamic tension mindset, but I’m not so naive as to think that the adoption of this mindset simply results in endless rainbows and unicorns. Even in an organization or group that has a strong commitment to a positive dynamic tension mindset, it is possible for disagreements to boil over into conflict - we are all human after all, which means anyone of us at any given time is prone to irrationality, emotionality, stoking up drama, and taking things personally. Leadership is vital to ensure that this risk is minimized, more on that below.

In an organization or group that holds a conflict mindset, most if not all disagreements are taken personally, so that those disagreements produce hurt and spite. This conflict-framed experience leads to staff dissatisfaction and serves to undermine the business itself. In turn, that creates at least two negative outcomes: (1) staff attrition - the highly-skilled folks feel the stress and simply seek employment elsewhere, or (2) entrenched staff - who either engage in active combat or shrink in depressed despair - but in either case they are not contributing much of anything to the success of the organization. This demonstrates the destructive power of a conflict mindset.

The role of Leadership
Leaders who cultivate and practice a positive dynamic tension mindset will maximize success when they:
     Help to ensure that goals and outcomes are crystal clear and agreed upon. They will repeat the vision and objectives of any initiative as often as necessary to ensure that all collaborating staff are aligned and committed to the effort.
     Consistently encourage an open discussion and show sincere appreciation for alternative points of view.
     Guide discussions as needed - play the role of a confident moderator/facilitator, this will help nip any potential conflict in the bud.
     Demonstrate the value of dynamic tension in their own working style, by accepting input and criticism, showing openness to others’ perspectives, encouraging everyone in the organization - regardless of job title or seniority - to weigh in, make suggestions, share pain points, etc. In addition - and perhaps most-importantly - demonstrate the changes that they are going to make based on the feedback they’ve received.

On the other hand, there are leaders who have - whether intentionally or not - cultivated a workplace that is operating with a conflict mindset. From my perspective, such leaders have missed the mark on how a current day workplace needs to function. In such a workplace, we will see the leaders demonstrate the following behaviors consistently:
     Creating and perpetuating conflicting goals across the organization - this fosters a kind of internal competition for resources, recognition, and power.
     Fostering silos - separating business units both physically and functionally, and often showing favoritism for certain units over others.
     Defensiveness - this can be personal (“I can’t be the problem here, so it must by you”) or territorial (“My team is doing fine, it’s that other department that is the real problem”).
     Dismissing internal communication and collaboration as wastes of time.
     Hoarding knowledge and power - creating a permission-based workplace, with little transparency across any job functions and little to no overlap in institutional knowledge (“Only Mildred can approve that, you’ll have to wait for her to return to the office next week”, or “Only Frank knows how to fix that, so don’t call me again”).
     Treating colleagues disrespectfully or dismissively, especially demonstrated by higher-ranking positions behavior toward lower-ranking staff.

Okay, let’s not end on a negative note.

How this works: An example of positive dynamic tension at work
I’m going to circle back to that session I referenced at the very beginning. Specifically, Kristing Prestegaard and I described a situation at Minneapolis Institute of Art where we work. At the risk of over-simplication, it goes something like this: we deliver the best possible online experience when our designers disagree with our software developers. You might say, “Wait, what? You can’t have staff disagreeing! Sounds like a real mess”. Nope. Not if you make sure that you are deploying a strong positive dynamic tension mindset. When you use that state of mind as the overall framework, you see the situation more like this:
     We have skilled designers. Their vision is strong, on-brand, elegant and impressive. They know it, and they should push to have their designs put into production on the website.
     We also have skilled software developers. Their vision for an effective and efficient website is strong. They ensure that style guides are followed, and the website runs smoothly using industry-standard technologies that are easier to upgrade and allow us to hire more readily because the skill sets needed are relatively common. They also innovate and iterate as they go, keeping the technology up-to-date. They should push hard to have their skills and knowledge drive decision-making.
     Disagreements between the two areas are naturally going to occur. Designers want perfection and elegance, software developers want effective code and sustainable product. Some designs are really hard to code, will take a long time to develop, and will be very difficult to maintain over time. There should be a healthy and ongoing debate, with designer pushing developers on look and feel, and with developers pushing designers on functionality, responsiveness, accessibility, and ease of use.
     That disagreement is NOT a tug-of-war, with one side eventually relenting and thus losing. Instead, each disagreement is an opportunity for the two areas to land upon innovative solutions that might never have been found if not for the debate.
     Leaders of both areas tend to the disagreements to ensure that team members are not personalizing or attacking, but are instead actively listening and working together on solutions - and never “keeping score”.
     When it’s working well, you end up with successes in both areas, but more importantly: delighted customers.

The Lesson
Don’t fear or avoid disagreement in the workplace, it’s actually an effective tool to drive both efficiency and innovation within any organization, if you have the right mindset. But like everything else that matters, you need to tend to it and nurture it properly in order for it to remain healthy and vital.

Drucker, P.F., (1998) “Management’s new paradigms” (cover story), Forbes 162 (7), pp. 152–170.

Manville, B., & Ober, J., (2003), “Beyond empowerment: Building a company of citizens”, Harvard Business Review (Jan.), pp. 48–53.

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., and McKelvey, B., (2007), "Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era". Leadership Institute Faculty Publications. 18.

Whitehurst, J., (2015), “The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance”. Harvard Business Review Press. 

This post also appears on LinkedIn