The idea that it’s good for a company to overcome their inner conflicts and unit the people towards the same goal is very popular – and wrong. Due to professionalizing and the division of labor you need tensions, not harmony, to be productive.
Let’s assume, that your task as a managing director is to pursue an active growth strategy. In a board meeting, the heads of sales and production have each received the unmistakable “go” to make that happen. You count on their ability to cooperate for the sake of the overarching strategic goal. Then, reality kicks in: It’s not happening. Instead, there are continuous conflicts between production and sales on various levels, the heads blaming each other during board meetings.
Two bad options at your disposal
At this point, you might think about two options:
- Organize a team building event to overcome the conflicts
- Set-up a crisis meeting with the heads to force decisions on burning issues.
Both options are problematic, each for their own reason. A team building event, like building together a raft, might be fun and even stimulate harmonic cooperation during the event. However, come next Monday, the business reality strikes back with the same unproductive dynamics.
A crisis meeting doesn’t get you any further, either. Each party will raise a complex bundle of arguments, incidents, and facts, that you can neither verify nor oversee the implications, if you decide in one party’s favor. Just delegating it back at them will make it worse and will cost extra time.
Tensions are necessary
The good news is: You don’t have a specific crisis; you have a common business problem, called unproductive tensions. To turn them into productive tensions, you need to understand them better.
The most important fact about tensions in business: They can’t be avoided.
They originate in the division of labor and the need of each function to professionalize and to be efficient. Consequently, units pursue their own tasks, goals and what they deem to be the right “interpretation” of the strategy and necessary actions. Their focus is rather on autonomy then on cooperation. So, it’s easy to understand that they will have different views to start with.
Furthermore: Tensions are necessary. That’s the whole point of creating functional expertise and interfaces so that issues can be evaluated from more than one professional perspective to come up with smarter solutions that work for all units. Think for a moment what would happen, if either sales or production alone would decide on the growth strategy without having to integrate the perspective of the other?
Shaping structures is a leadership task
To make use of your tensions, you need to shape the right structures. Productive tensions must be designed. They don’t just happen. If functions will need to argue, and if that argument fulfils a vital role, then the key question is: What should they argue about and how – to make it a productive debate.
Enabling productive tensions is a deliberate act by the executive. It’s about designing org charts, defining scopes, assigning tasks, and empowering employees. Thinking ahead about what decision needs to be addressed on what level by whom in which formats is key.For example: When dealing with sales forecasts and production capacities, it might make sense to create a joint routine that continuously reviews changes in forecasts and also integrates the purchase function early on.
What you should avoid: If current board procedures do not foster the debate and decisions about pressing strategic questions, then the lack of orientation will further aggravate the cooperation between the functions on the levels below, which are not empowered to resolve the underlying conflict between board members.
A positive outlook for executives
With this powerful concept of “shaping structures” in mind, executives can place back their role as peacekeepers and focus instead on their role as orchestrators of productive tensions. If adequate structures cause more productive debates directly where problems originate and can be solved, fewer problems will be escalated to the higher level – giving executives more room to focus on their core tasks and challenges.
The included great message for leadership as such is: This approach can be applied to all levels of hierarchy – from CEO to team level.