September 12th, 2021 - by Robert Best

Creative versus Psychological Tension


We all know how it feels when there’s tension in the workplace. It’s uncomfortable, distracting, even destructive. What is less well known is the fact that there are two types of tension. The one that is most common is psychological tension, and that’s generally the one we all recognise. Creative tension is much rarer, yet it can be actively created and then used in service to your end results.

My starting point is the premise that tension seeks resolution. On the simplest level, if you stretch out an elastic band, it is constantly under tension until that tension is resolved. This might be as a result of it being allowed to ping back, or you might gently return it to its non-tense state, or you might stretch it so hard that it snaps.

In my view, if you want to progress and move forward as an individual, as a team or as an organisation, there has to be a tension between where you’d love to be (let’s call that the vision) and the state of affairs in which you currently find yourself (your current reality). If these two states are properly recognised and elucidated, and the resulting tension between the two is skillfully martialled and directed, then this tension can be leveraged in order to bring the vision into being.

This is what I’ve learned to think of as creative tension.

Of course, ‘creative’ does not equate to ‘comfortable’, especially since such a state of tension can be present, albeit in a constantly morphing form, for weeks, months, even years, as steps are taken, one after another after another, towards the vision. Indeed, part of the skill here is developing the ability to ‘hang with the tension’; if creative tension is the fuel that will take you to your vision, resolving it prematurely is the last thing you’ll want to do!

However, creative tension is a very specific form of tension; as I’ve said, it must be consciously created between two clearly understood states and then martialled and directed in such a way that it serves to constantly narrow the gap between those two states until such time as the vision is reached. This makes creative tension relatively rare.

There is another, far more common type of tension that will spontaneously emerge at the slightest provocation and, contrary to being creative and forward-moving, tends to be dysfunctional, backward-looking and destructive. This is psychological tension.

Imagine you’re drowning in debt – credit cards, a mortgage you can barely afford, school fees, medical bills, bank loans, car payments, on and on and on. Psychological tension is created when you do what appears to be obvious in this situation which is to focus on paying down your debts in some way, or at least finding ways to reduce their burden. This brings into play another premise with which I work, that focus creates reality. If your focus is on the debt, guess what? Your debts get bigger, and the problem gets worse and worse. (This is not a random example; it’s one I’ve experienced personally and witnessed in many others).

Inadvertently focusing on what you don’t want is, of course, only one source of psychological tension. Another common one that shows up in organisations all the time is the clash between people, either due to personality differences, behavioural issues, or the pursuit of personal, semi-hidden agendas that are not congruent with those of the wider team. These sorts of inter-personal tensions can, if left unchecked, pull focus from what needs to be done and end up being the sole topic of conversation. A recent example is the Trump administration. Regardless of your political views, the Trump White House was, by and large, an incredibly dysfunctional group of incredibly dysfunctional people, over half a dozen of whom were swept up in criminal investigations, a few actually serving time in jail. Meantime, out in the real world, precious little appears to have been achieved.

The ability to consistently spot the differences between creative and psychological tension can take time to develop. In the meantime, it’s fairly safe to assume that any tensions that show up spontaneously within yourself, your team or your organisation will be psychological. Assuming that is true, then what can we do about such tensions?

Psychological tensions generally emerge from dysfunctional situations and attitudes and, while there is often an impulse in managers to understand and address the source of such tensions, this will not move things forward. Now, I’m not saying that inter-personal conflicts, for example, should be ignored; as an executive coach, I’ve personally witnessed the value of delving into such issues, with all the concerned parties, in an effort to broker some sort of peaceful solution. Sometimes, it even works in the long term, and brings a deeper sense of empathy and understanding all round.

However, as in the Trump White House, such situations can rapidly become the main focus, rather than being a side issue to the main business of the team or organisation. In order to refocus the group and effectively convert psychological tension into creative tension, one must rise above the former altogether. This can be done in three stages.

  • Ask the question: what would we love to create? This might be a successful product launch, a supportive working environment, a 23% increase in revenues, five new jobs, or whatever. Here, you are creating your ‘North Star’ to which you will all commit and navigate towards from here on in. When you have the answer to this question clearly expressed and written down, invite all those present (even if it’s just you!) to spend a few minutes imagining being in that place, having achieved all that you’ve just laid out. How does it make you feel? Are you celebrating? Punching the air? Glowing with pride? Handing out bonuses? Indulge in this for a while. Enjoy it.
  • Ask the question: where are we now, in relation to the vision elucidated in 1? This needs to be detailed, clear-eyed and brutally honest. If you pull your punches here, you reduce the creative tension before you even get rolling. Once you’ve answered this question, again, spend some time really sinking in to how this current reality makes you feel. Is it painful? Uncomfortable? Frightening? Daunting? Embarrassing? Whatever feelings come up, don’t shy away from them – embody them for a few minutes at least, and really allow yourself to go there.
  • Now, in your imagination, go back to the vision and, once you’re back in the joy and celebration of that, ask the question from this future position: what was the obvious next action step I took? It’s extremely important to be informed of your next step from your future orientation. That’s where the intuitive wisdom lies. Otherwise, you’ll just dream up next steps from your current reality, from where you are today, and that rarely serves up anything very useful.

During the process of digital transformation within your firm, whether it’s a modest change in a single core process or a company-wide, decade-long project, tensions will arise – that’s guaranteed! The trick is to openly create and wield creative tension I service to your end results, while minimising the destructive and distracting psychological tensions that tend to arise spontaneously, especially when your team are feeling under pressure.

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