Teaching your team how to troubleshoot tension

Feb 22, 2018 | Perspectives in Engineering

Your organization is comprised of different groups—Product Managers and Software Engineers, Designers and QA—each with different goals that sometimes overlap or conflict with each other.

We often call this dynamic “healthy tension,” derived from the idea that the tensions that arise between people result in better outcomes.

“I find in practice that it’s not so simple,” says Kimber Lockhart, CTO at One Medical Group. “Diversity of opinions is certainly important, but is tension between roles necessary to achieve great results? I think we can do better.”

“Around four years ago, I made a move into healthcare. I wanted to move a very traditional industry forward while also making a positive difference in people’s lives,” she told us. At the time, the technical organization at One Medical was much smaller than the previous team Lockhart lead at Box, but they’ve grown fast. And it’s Lockhart’s job to make sure they scale with ease.

Lockhart recently walked us through her system for aligning the work focus. Now, she’s guiding us through how to proactively manage the tension that inevitably arises in teams.

The truth about tension

“What the traditional notion of healthy tension gets wrong is that it pits team members who do different jobs against each other,” she explains. “The tension that drives great results is not the kind of tension that exists between team members, but the tension that exists within each person.”

Tension may always exist within your team. But by writing it off as “healthy,” you’re allowing unhealthy behavior to fester. As people get entrenched, their feelings get hurt. “Those who end up losing the debate end up resigned or feel as though they don’t have a voice,” Lockhart says.

“The kind of tension that drives great results is the tension that exists within each person.”

So, challenge your team to move beyond their own functional perspective, to learn from mistakes, and to understand the bigger picture. And stop encouraging tension — implicitly or explicitly — between your team members.

Find common ground

This doesn’t mean that her teams aren’t supposed to disagree. Far from it – they want to have plenty of diversity in opinions. But, at the end of the day, a decision has to be made, so they go with a ‘disagree and commit’ resolution.

“Once we decide, we move ahead with that,” she says. “That culture helps these to become one-time differences of opinion rather than longterm disagreements.”

There’s a worthy distinction here between “difference of opinion” and “tension.” Tension exists on an emotional level when conflicting ideas aren’t discussed; difference of opinion happens in a professional, mature work context with open communication.

If you’ve focused your team on a common purpose, you have a group of people who are all on board with the company’s mission and focus. With that common ground, team members can often detect and resolve tension before it becomes damaging.

“Your first responsibility is always to try to resolve an issue directly with the person that you’re working with.”

“We’ve been able to coach the team on how to resolve issues directly with the people they’re working with,” she explains. “Go get coffee, get out of the office, and have a conversation about working together. I find myself consistently surprised by how many organizations overlook the basics of helping people work well together.”

Don’t take it personally

Lockhart also finds that problems escalate when people ascribe intent to opinion. Agreeing to disagree no longer works well when people take differences of opinion personally.

“We talk a lot about not ascribing intent,” she says. For instance, when an escalation takes place, managers have individual coaching sessions with the people involved. Employees each go through other plausible intents that could have caused the same behavior from their peers.

This resolution system isn’t about right-and-wrong. “Frankly, it doesn’t matter what the real intent was,” Lockhart says. “Maybe a product manager was right that the intent of the engineer was malicious. But pointing out that other intentions exist that produce the same behavior will often reduce tension and allow team members to resolve it as a one-time issue rather than allowing it to linger.”

The reason we have roles

When all else fails, we lean on structure. “I can just resolve it,” Lockhart says. “If it is something that has been escalated up and is important, then ultimately it’s my call whose decision it is. I try to do that as little as possible, though. Frankly, just the fact that a decision-maker exists causes things to resolve themselves.”

“Just the fact that a decision-maker exists causes things to resolve themselves.”

Relying on traditional roles to resolve conflict is a last resort to maintain a healthy culture, not the one-stop shop for addressing tension. The ability for your teams to reconcile differences on their own is critical to getting your real mission accomplished.

By recognizing tension for what it is (not always healthy), and equipping team members to resolve tension, you can support an organization that hums along, not tension-free, but certainly more tension-proof.

headshot and bio


Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson is a co-founder at GitPrime where he leads design and customer experience. He is a Y Combinator alumni, with a background in product design, branding, and UX design. Follow @thebent on Twitter.

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