Creative Tension in the Workplace: Who needs it? You do!


creative tension n 1. a situation where disagreement or discord ultimately gives rise to better ideas or outcomes

Now, here is my (Conflict Advisor) definition of “creative tension:” that place where the ideas of smart people are mixing and boiling and bumping into each other in ways they never have before. It is that space where huge ideas emerge, empires are built, and uncontrollable fun is around every corner. It is that place where people are opening up their minds to push out their best work, and are opening themselves up for praise and critique like they never have before.

However you define it, Creative Tension is where innovation and growth happens.

And...the joy and productivity of that place, that Pandora’s Box of creativity, can easily move toward the tension part and away from the creative part. The result? Workplace conflict that can turn destructive and unproductive.

This is one of the biggest challenges any good leader faces. How do you find that balance, the Creative Tension Zone, in your workplace culture in which the conflict is harnessed so that positive outcomes happen without any (metaphorically speaking) bloodshed?

Let’s start with what a team looks like that thrives in the Creative Tension Zone. This team is well-managed based on these building blocks:

  • Inclusiveness
  • Safety
  • Nurtured and celebrated ideas
  • Trust

When the power of “good” conflict is harnessed (with the building blocks in place), the workplace environment spawns outcomes like:

  • New ideas and innovation
  • Better decision quality
  • More creativity which inspire team as well as organization
  • Higher productivity
  • More nimble market entry
  • Increased retention of a workforce that’s motivated and appreciated
  • Higher profitability and shareholder value
Resologics Workplace Team Conflict Zone Chart
Conflict is a given — The outcomes of that conflict are a choice.
— Mark Batson Baril

Teams fall out of the Creative Tension Zone for a variety of reasons, tipping into destructive conflict. The warning signs are there -- and predictable. Being as aware as possible of what is happening in and around human relations in your workplace is key. When you know these dynamics, you become well-equipped to manage these relations and build those foundational blocks of a strong, highly-productive team.

When we can grasp what is happening and have an awareness of our own reactions and those of others, we are much more likely to be able to stay in the productive Creative Tension Zone and less likely to fall into conflict. Easier said than done – right? Right! (That’s why we have Conflict Advisors.)

The Tool: Conflict Curve

I want to introduce to you a tool we have adapted very effectively in our work with teams and leaders of teams who find themselves at any of these points along the scale. The Conflict Curve applies to any and all conflicts, from a neighbor’s barking dog dispute to a war between two countries.

Take a moment to look at the various points on the curve. Think about the relationships within your teams, and where they are riding on the curve. Can you relate any of the conflicts you have encountered to various points along the curve? What do you notice?

Key awareness:  Recognizing where on the Conflict Curve your team is sitting - in real time and at any given juncture - is critical. This is because the further along the downward slope your team finds itself, the harder it is to return to normal productive relations. And the more management time it takes to deal with all the crap that goes along with that end of the curve. So not only are you bogged down in these time- and money-saps, your team is not in the Creative Tension Zone, that sweet spot of innovation, productivity, and happy people.

Here’s one way to use this tool -- practice the skill of Conflict Curve awareness. Recognize the Creative Tension Zone everywhere around you. Using the points on the Curve, observe your team in process, relationships in other aspects of your life, or even from a story in a news post, and try to identify where the conflict sits on the curve.

The Trust Factor

You probably noticed that “Loss of Trust” is highlighted in yellow on the Curve. A key discovery in our work as Conflict Advisors is that the “Loss of Trust” stage is a big turning point. Once trust is lost, it becomes more and more difficult to recover the relationship and resolve the conflict in a way that is good for everyone. Hop on this link for more on how trust is essential to a productive workplace.

To recap:  The healthy environment in business teams where strong relationships and bold ideas mix and bang together is called the Creative Tension Zone. The way to build such teams is to lay those building blocks of trust, safety, inclusiveness, and creative invitation. To tap into the expertise you need to do this right, I invite you to schedule a conversation with me here.