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Three Tensions that Make or Break Every Team

Three Tensions that Make or Break Every Team

Leadership Development and Team-building expert Tim Arnold knows his way around dichotomies. Whether it’s about planning v. action, competition v. collaboration, change v. stability or work v. home, his highly-developed tools and sage knowledge help leaders dive head on and better their personal and professional lives.

In a recent blog post he wrote about three tensions that, if managed properly, can catapult businesses to a higher performance tier.

Here’s that post in its entirety:

I meet with leaders all the time who are passionate, talented, and innovative but who are still struggling to get their teams to perform at the level they know is possible.

Most leaders don’t know that the thing they’re most avoiding—tension—is the very thing that could explode the growth and effectiveness of their team. The greatest mistake I see leaders make is treating every challenge they face as if it were a problem to solve, rather than a tension to manage. This problem solving approach is great when you’re dealing with an actual problem – things like policy, procedure, accounting, or finance. However, when you’re dealing with a tension to manage—things like planning versus action, flexibility versus structure, and control versus empowerment—treating it like a problem to solve will have you feeling like you’re beating your head against a brick wall.

Until you learn how to manage tension, you’re putting your team (and your organization) at risk. Not to mention, you are paradoxically moving away from the very values and goals you are trying to achieve. Consider what former President Barack Obama has to say about his complicated and tenuous work at the White House:

“The issues that cross my desk are hard and complicated, and oftentimes involve the clash not of right and wrong, but of two rights. And you’re having to balance and reconcile against competing values that are equally legitimate”. (Barack Obama, 2010)

I have the privilege of working with a long list of teams that range from small start-up businesses to weapons inspectors within The United Nations. Even though all of these teams are incredibly unique, I discovered that each one is forced to deal with the same three key tensions. When you learn to manage these three key tensions—the ones I’m about to share with you in this document—you gain a superpower in business that will not only help you and your team to thrive, it will also allow you to maintain the integrity of your values and your purpose.


One of the most common tensions I see leaders misdiagnose as a “problem to solve” is the struggle between holding on to core values (TRADITION) while at the same time embracing innovation and new approaches (CHANGE). Often, leaders confront this tension by over-focusing on need for change. In their excitement to promote change, they mistakenly treat current reality as if everything is broken, working to convince a team that the desired change is the obvious path to utopia. This inevitably backfires. By viewing all aspects of current reality as broken, a few things happen:

• Teams lose touch with what is actually working and their areas of expertise.

• Teams feel threatened because they aren’t acknowledged for what they’re good at and known for.

• Leaders and team forget important lessons from the past and lose connection with their core values and mission.

• Team members become divided—those who are “for change” and those who are against it, creating unnecessary chaos, confusion and polarization. Of course, there are certainly leaders who go the other way, seeing “the way we do things around here” as safe, successful and needing to be secured at all costs. This over-focus on preserving tradition results in teams missing out on innovation that can transform the organization and improve the teams’ effectiveness. Slowly but surely, teams become stagnant, bored and outdated.

Great leaders know that in order to succeed and have a thriving team, they need to have one hand embracing change and innovation, while at the same time holding in the other hand the preservation of tradition and stability. This is not a problem to solve, but a tension they need to embrace and leverage. When you’re able to leverage this tension, rather than push for an either/or solution, you find that not only can you stay true to your value and integrity as a leader and an organization, but you can also be innovators and pursuers of new and better.


Another tension I’ve seen keep many leaders defeated by is the struggle between focusing on a team-based approach (TEAM) versus empowering individuals to do their own thing (INDIVIDUAL). When either one of these options become the “solution” to the challenges leaders face, organizations struggle to find consistency and stability, and everyone ends up paying the price. If a leader over-focuses on a team approach, a few things will happen:

• The neglect of individual work—meaning nothing getting done (or done on time).

• A tendency towards “group think”, where people hide behind the team to avoid ownership and responsibility. On the other hand, if a leader focuses too much on an individual approach without curating a team environment, this will lead to a disconnected work environment, where everyone is doing their one individual task, but nobody feels connected to the greater vision and mission of the organization. Team “silos” emerge where no one knows what’s going on outside of their little world, and no one benefits from collaboration and synergy. I’ve seen this happen again and again—where individuals will stay motivated for a while (they like their autonomy). But eventually, people burn out when they don’t see how they’re connected to the whole.

The key to organizing work, and achieving both efficiency and effectiveness is being able to not settle for one approach or the other, but instead achieve a healthy tension between a collaborative, connected team and individuals who have space, autonomy and responsibility to focus and deliver.


The final tension that leaders must learn to understand and embrace is the tension of helping their employees thrive both at home and at work. More often than not, leaders place a huge emphasis on ensuring their employees are thriving at work. They promote “an owner’s mindset” and expect the staff to put work above all other things. They narrowly focus on job descriptions and company expectations without keeping in mind that their staff are also responsible to their families, community, and themselves. When this is the approach leaders take, a variety of things tend to happen:

• Leaders feel disconnected from their team, because while they share this one aspect of life, they’re out of touch with the whole person who is working for them.

• Employees are under-committed to the task at hand, reflecting the level of commitment that has been shown to them. They feel like a number, as if they aren’t truly valued and cared for.

• Decrease in engagement, high turnover, and poor team morale: the fear I hear all the time from leaders is, “if I start to focus on their home life, they won’t get their work done!” But, I find that when leaders treat “work and home” as a tension to manage, they actually get higher performance from their employees, not the other way around. When leaders find ways to focus on and care about both employee interests and company interests, embracing flexibility, empathy and personal development, employees know that they matter, and want to give back the best of who they are to their job.


Once you start to acknowledge and embrace these three tensions, you quickly realise that seeing is relieving!

There is incredible relief in knowing that you haven’t been solving these problems poorly. In fact, they are not problems to solve at all. These tensions are never going to go away, so the goal is to find healthy and productive ways to be managing them, since they will be with you for a long, long time. When you become clear on these three tensions and bring this awareness to the teams you lead, you can stop wasting time arguing which approach is right and which is wrong. You can stop dealing with the dysfunction and ineffectiveness of a polarized team. And you can stop swinging back and forth from one approach to another, hoping that one day you’ll “figure things out.” “Figuring it out” is all about holding the tension. And now you’re well on your way. Spending time understanding and embracing these three tensions will take your leadership and your team to a whole new level. You will unite your team, spark sustainable change, and get unstuck.