Posted on: August 11, 2020
Author: Randy Bowman, IACET Vice President of Technology
Leading from Within the Tension image

One of the lessons I learned about midway through my IT career is that there are really two kind of technological issues: problems to solve and tensions to manage. A “problem to solve” is an issue that, once corrected, is resolved and generally does not resurface (e.g., The light in the hallway has burned out; once the bulb is replaced, the problem is solved). A “tension to manage” on the other hand, is a situation where two or more equally valid, yet opposing, objectives or viewpoints exist, and there is no way to fully resolve this tension without creating an undesirable side effect.

For example, there is an old joke in the IT world about IT projects that says, “You can have it fast, you can have it good, or you can have it cheap. Pick two.” These three objectives, speedy delivery of the product, quality of the product, and cost of the product, are all cogent but disparate objectives that must be managed.

Just as a rubber-band race car needs the pent-up energy of a tightly wound rubber band, organizations need a certain amount of tension to grow; tension is the engine of progress. Be careful not to conflate conflict with tension; they are very different beasts. Conflict needs to be dealt with before it undermines morale, as it will fester beneath the surface, leading to poor performance. Tension, on the other hand, is necessary for action, and it needs to be managed. Here are three tips to help lead from within the tension.

Recognize the difference between Tensions and Problems

When encountering an issue repeatedly, leaders need to ask themselves, “Is this a problem to solve or a tension to manage?” Problems are usually temporary and have clear upside and downside elements. Tensions are usually more permanent, and when evaluating the situation, one can see that each side of the tension has both pros and cons.

Another way to differentiate between problems and tensions is to ask, “Are there mature advocates on both sides?” A leader who is surrounded with experienced people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, and passions and who are permitted to chime in, will hear smart, capable, and successful people passionately disagreeing as they promote competing approaches. If two people who are trusted advisors are proposing opposing solutions, you most certainly have a tension to manage. 

Create a Shared Vocabulary

Quality shared language can perpetuate a healthy culture. By talking about and using the phrases “problem solving” and “managing tensions” throughout the organization, leaders can reframe the discussion, offering a third category.  When two strong personalities find themselves on opposing sides of an issue, and there is no third category, the situation morphs into a “win-lose;” someone inevitably wins, which means someone inevitably loses.

When leaders propagate this shared jargon to their core team members, they are teaching those team members how leaders think. Then, as the shared lingo permeates the organization, the team starts approaching leadership by saying, “we have a tension to manage” or “here is a problem we need to solve.”     

Embrace the Tension

By their very nature, leaders are doers and problem-solvers. But coupled with that is a myth that leaders who struggle with the same issues repeatedly must not be very good leaders. This creates a situation where leaders may be doing themselves a disservice, if they attempt to squash all tension. Instead, leaders want to live in the tension by continually giving value to both sides. Remember, these are opposing, yet equal values.  Leaders need to understand and own their personal biases, while not being unduly swayed by them. Leaders must be willing to understand the pros of the opposite side while considering the cons of their own sides.

Finally, try not to think necessarily in terms of achieving equilibrium. Leaders want to address tensions more in terms of rhythm. Sometimes innovative activities and out-of-the-box thinking are necessary; at other times strictly following procedures and rules is best; and there may be times when a balance between the two is needed. At times collaborating with others and involving colleagues in decision making is the best approach; at other times, fast decision-making and hard-driving action are the best strategies to obtain desired outcomes. When leading from within the tension, it is not necessarily about compromise, it’s about understanding how to use the tension to pursue excellence.

About the Author


Randy Bowman is the Vice President of Technology and Organizational Effeciency at IACET. Randy has over twenty years professional experience in project management, software design and development as well as IT operations and IT security for government agencies and non-profit associations.

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