Woman holding mug "like a boss"

Managing Constructive Tension

Never confuse a leader’s kindness with weakness

When asked to describe the best boss we’ve ever had, most of us reveal paradoxical characteristics, such as:

  • Tough but fair
  • High expectations but cared about the team
  • Demanding but gave people a lot of autonomy
  • Driven but created a positive work culture

Great managers and leaders, apparently, are able to manage the tension of opposites.

The highly influential book Built to Last, stressed that the most successful leaders “Embrace the genius of Yes-And thinking and avoid the tyranny of Either–Or thinking.” In other words, they would never compromise the long-term for the short-term; they would vigorously pursue and demand both.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

Let’s examine what managing constructive tension might look like for Managing a difficult workplace conversation:

  • A less effective, Either-Or manager mindset might be, I’m going to deliver my ultimatum to him straight and let the chips fall where they may. This manager is adopting the velvet glove technique, minus the velvet! The manager may get compliance, but will cause irreparable damage to an important relationship because behavior often follows intention.
  • A more effective manager embracing Yes–And thinking might set two intertwined conversational goals: 1) clarify performance expectations, 2) encourage the employee’s growth and development. This manager is clearly using a push and pull technique; the employee will be held accountable to perform, but the manager also shows concern for the employee’s development. She will manage the constructive tension between the opposites of performance results and employee relationships. Her approach will feel like tough love.

Reflect upon your legacy. How do you want others to describe your leadership style? How should you grow and adapt to meet tomorrow’s changing business demands? It might not feel natural but embracing a tension-of-opposite focus is a safe bet.

As a great early mentor of mine often said and always practiced – be tough on standards but gentle on people. -Steve

As always, check out my other blog posts for even more great manager-coaching tips!