We talk a lot about harmonious workplaces. That is, of course, our goal. But, having said that, it turns out that a bit of benevolent tension actually is a good thing. So good in fact that I was tempted initially to wax alliterative and title this article “Tension is Terrific” being inspired by the 1980’s adage “Greed is good”. Luckily, I realized just in time that that was carrying it a bit too far. Tension, however, within limits, is desirable. In fact, tension, if managed correctly, can be the catalyst for enhanced creativity and innovation.
When I say “tension,” by the way, I don’t mean anger or fisticuffs or blatant conflict. What I mean is that subtle whiff of discomfort and creative confusion that rises from working with people who think, speak, and reason differently from yourself.
I find the idea of creative confusion fascinating. Apparently, so too do researchers from universities as prestigious as Stanford and Harvard. Whether that workplace diversity is rooted in race, or gender, or even political party, trying to solve a problem with someone different from oneself just plain manifests in more creative results. This is because that difference – and the tension is creates – brings out the best in us all.
As I write this, I’m thinking back to my college days at UCLA. My grades were fine, but somewhere in my junior year I found myself drifting – I guess you’d say I was sleep-walking through the courses. Doing OK, but just not that engaged. That is until I took a class on international relations. I can’t recall the professor’s name, but I do know he was so prestigious that he kept having to cancel class to fly to Washington D.C. to consult with then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. I also recall what a darn hard class it was and I truly believe it was because of that difficulty that I was able to excel. Then tension that the difficulty created forced me to bring all my best resources to the task.
The same type of creative tension comes into play when listening to ideas from those who are different from yourself. When colleagues are different from us – be it in how they speak, how they think, or the ideas they express – we often have to work harder to understand their argument or idea. That confusion – that cognitive tension – causes all parties to bring increased mental effort to the moment. As we mentally strain forward to understand, out increased alertness just might produce an idea that otherwise would have remained unexplored.
All that’s great, but it gets still better. Diversity on our team, not only causes us to listen more carefully, it also forces us to think and communicate more clearly. Have you ever struggled to explain your point-of-view to someone whose background, perspective or even communication style is substantially different from your own? Persuading someone whose view is different requires us to be more logical, to think deeper, and to explore more aspects of the situation than would be the case if the other party were more like us. That enhanced effort just might allow you and your team to come up with a still better idea – one that, without the tension of diversity, would have gone undiscovered.
The material in this post reflects the ideas expressed in Dr. Thiederman’s book 3 Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias and in the training videos Defeating Unconscious Bias: 5 Strategies and Gateways to Inclusion: Turning Tense Moments into Productive Conversations.
Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for in-person presentations, webinar facilitation, and panel participation by clicking here or calling 619-583-4478. For additional information, go to www.thiederman.com.
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