Ep. 15 - Boosting Your Team's Tensions Competence

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Tensions Competence is a little-known key to culture-building in businesses. It is the ability to navigate ambiguity through multidimensional thinking instead of getting trapped in either-or dead-ends. Tensions Competence is essential to managing individual and group anxiety so useful ideas can be generated, and superior problem-solving, decision-making, and conflict resolution can occur. In this Boosting Business Value podcast episode, you'll discover how to elevate Tensions Competence in yourself and your team.


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Boosting Your Team's Tensions Competence

A Big Key to Best-in-Class Decision-Making Despite Ambiguous Circumstances

In this episode, we're going to explore little-known yet important key culture building in business, a thing called tensions competence. With me is my good friend and colleague, Dr. David Gruder, the business life cycle exit planning and post-acquisition organizational psychologist for the team. How are you doing?

I’m doing well. Thanks. You?

I’m doing fantastic. Thank you so much.

Let's plunge in. Let's start with a little bit of framing. This concept of tensions competence is not a well-known term, yet it's a pretty simple thing once one understands what it is. What tensions competence is, is our capacity to navigate ambiguity without falling into the trap of either/or thinking. Another way of speaking about or framing tensions competence is that it's our capacity to think multi-dimensionally about issues rather than one-dimensionally about them.

That's great. It's so important in business as well as in life. Tensions competency is a way to minimize anxiety or manage the anxiety that you have internally from not knowing all the answers and from not having what's known as complete information. Also, as part of a group setting, it helps to facilitate and open the doors to better brainstorming and problem-solving in those group settings.

This is something that I don't hear people talking about. As we go through this episode, I hope all of you will see why the doc and I get so excited about it. It's something that once you know it and you start practicing it, like any other muscle, it will strengthen. You'll see the outcomes and the opportunities for yourself and your business growing as that muscle gets stronger.

We're not going to stay on an abstract conceptual level. We're going to get into the how-to's and all of that. We're going to move next into four big challenges that Jason and I see with developing and utilizing tensions competence. The first is our cultural context. Culturally, we are bathed in either/or polarization thinking. Whether you like it or not, that kind of collective dysfunctional consciousness does bleed over into how people on your team relate to each other at work. I'm talking about well-intended people. This is not intentional. It's just a natural bleed over from cultural programming.

To unpack that a little bit, one of those pieces has to do with something that's been referred to, especially in propaganda theory circles, as information bubbles. What an information bubble is, is the result of internet algorithms, social media algorithms, and search engine algorithms that track what we seem to be interested in. Whatever that happens to be, the algorithm makes a point of showing us more of that. What ends up happening, an ego in search of evidence always finds it, although this is automated through algorithms. Whatever we indicate by our actions that we're interested in, we get more of that.

As an inadvertent result of that exposure or that reinforcement, we end up believing falsely that we're getting exposed to the whole picture around whatever issue, theme, orientation, paradigm, worldview, etc. that we align with when, in fact, we're only seeing the slices of that larger picture that the algorithm is showing to us because of what we've shown we have interest in. That's what an information bubble is. Information bubbles lead to the mindset that I call, “I see facts, you tell lies.” That means I know the whole picture because I don't know that I'm in an information bubble. I think I'm seeing everything. Anything that doesn't conform to that information bubble must be a lie, therefore.

There's a great quote that connects with this. The quote goes like this, “The enjoyment of moral outrage is one of the key sentiments that an expert by the name of Max Fisher sees being exploited by algorithms devised by Google for YouTube and devised by Meta for Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, which discovered they could monetize our impulse to moral outrage by having their algorithms promote hyperpartisanship. Divisiveness drives engagement, which in turn drives advertising revenues.”

This is from someone named Tamsin Shaw in an article called How Social Media Influences Our Behavior and Vice Versa. It was a review of Max Fisher's book, The Chaos Machine, which examines the psychological impacts of technology. This is the mindset or the one-dimensional thinking tensions incompetence mindset that people come to our businesses not knowing they're suffering from.

One of the great things about being a human being is we don't have to process only in 0 and 1. To follow up your quote with a little bit more concise version, the great David Bowie is known for saying, “I don't want knowledge. I want certainty.” That's where a lot of people reside. It makes it difficult because we reside in this place of wanting certainty. There's a part of our logical brain that knows that there's no such thing as perfect knowledge or complete information. That's where the tension starts because we feel like we have to have the answers. In order to have the answers, we have to have the context, the understanding, and the knowledge. We're striving for that.

People deal with this in different ways. You have these great clichés in our world. You've got analysis paralysis for the person who wants every fact before they will make a decision. You've got the people who shoot from the hip. They don't care if they have all the facts or not. They've got an opinion. People without any training and without any real thought deal with this ambiguity in one of those extremely polar ways. They feel the tension of knowing that what they're doing isn't right.

There's this great book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. It talks about how the limbic brain uses context, our innate fight-and-flight response, and relationship-building to make snap decisions. Context and more complex decisions need to be processed in our cortical brain, and that takes a lot of work. Our brain doesn't like doing the work so it always pushes decision-making back down to the limbic system.

BBV 15 | Tensions Competence

If we can slow down and get comfortable with the idea that we don't have perfect knowledge but we still can get context to make better decisions, we can start to reduce the anxiety that we feel when we know that we're making a decision that we aren't sure of or not making any decision when we know we need to.

That’s well said. I'm going to amplify a couple of those points of yours. Regarding the piece you were saying about our limbic system, I refer to that as our reptile brain. What it means is that when we’re under anxiety, our brain gets flooded with stress chemicals. Norepinephrine, adrenaline, and cortisol, it is those kinds of stress chemicals. When those are flooding our brains, the impact that has physiologically and neurologically is that it turns off the thinking part of our brain and turns on the reptile limbic system part of our brain.

The entire repertoire of our limbic system or our reptile brain is fight, flight, freeze, which is deer in the headlights, or faint. You play possum or play dead, hoping that the threat will pass if you don't move. That state makes it impossible to think things through. On top of that, the thinking part of our brain, as neurological researchers often say, is wired for closure. What they mean by that or what that phrase is shorthand for in neurological research is that our brain goes out of a state of agitation and into a state of rest when we can tell ourselves a story that we can feel comforted by regardless of its level of accuracy or inaccuracy.

That is so true. As business owners, it's more important to be accurate than to be at peace.

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As you were saying, certainty is expected. There is this belief that certainty can be achieved. The impacts of that false certainty on how we go about decision-making are massive and dysfunctional. When we expect certainty and believe that certainty can be achieved, we are not interested in multiple perspectives. We want one-dimensional or one-perspective thinking that is going to cancel out every other form of thinking. We're going to make decisions based on that perspective, and we're going to be erroneously thinking that those decisions are high-quality decisions. When those decisions backfire, we scratch our heads and think to ourselves, “I made a good decision. How did everything go to H-E-double-hockey-sticks in a handbasket?”

This whole indoctrination that you were mentioning as part one about the information bubbles, it feels a lot easier to have certainty when you surround yourself with people that say the same thing you want to hear. You'll notice in cultures and business environments where the boss is my way or the highway, it doesn't permeate down to the front rakes very well. You'll start to hear the grumblings and dissensions of the people who have other ideas that don't get heard. Not only is this an element of learning tensions competence that you can make better decisions, but it's also going to be learning tensions competence so that you can have a more inclusive culture. It's that inclusivity that breeds better perspective and then stronger decision-making.

To wrap up the key four challenges, as we mention a lot in this show, any form of personal actualization, cognitive decision-making, and cultural genesis, those things aren't being taught in any school. These are things that we, as human beings, are expected to figure out as we mature and grow as leaders. In this day and age, especially in the hyperconnected information world, we are expected to figure out how to actualize while the rest of the world is creating a sociological environment that pulls us in the opposite direction. The more we can start having these conversations and sharing amongst our peers and the business world as a whole, the more we can create a network of like-minded self-supporting individuals that can raise the tide for everybody else.

The consequences of missing this skill are dire not only for businesses. Think about the physiological nature of executives in our world. They’re dying of stress-related disorders on a massive scale. They have poor health. They don't have happiness in their life outside of work in many cases. It's all part and partial to being pulled in two different directions, one direction as a great leader and one direction as what society says is ideal. Tensions competence plays a role in all of this.

Let me add one thing about that. As business owners, we have two choices. We can piss, moan, and complain over how the people who come to work for us don't know how to think, or we can have compassion for the fact that people come to us because they're bathed in that mindset long before they came to us. We can take responsibility for not only selecting teachable or coachable people, which is crucial but then providing them with this kind of training that will unpack the solutions roadmap that you're going to kick us off into.

Let's get right into that. The first thing that is important for anybody even before you try to overcome the tension, but as you're starting to recognize this tension in your decision-making process, your strategic discourse, or these challenging conversations, use the slowdown cool down method. This works when you're in a good environment or when you're in a bad environment.

When you think you have a perfect answer, your adrenaline and heart rate kick up. You see it all perfectly clear in your mind. You want to charge ahead without getting any other input or any other feedback that you're hot on the trail of an answer. That's a great time to cool down and say, “Let’s see what could go wrong with this. What am I blind to right now? I see this vision so clearly.”

The other side is when you don't see the vision clearly but everybody's looking to you for an answer as the leader and you feel like you're under the clock and have to provide an answer, that's when slowdown comes in. Start saying, “Let’s make sure first we understand the problem.” In talking through with the people who are looking for an answer from you on how to define the problem, everybody will learn more about what potentials there are for a solution.

You can then start to work toward, “How many different ways can we come at this problem in an effort to resolve it?” By doing that, by slowing down, cooling down, and taking a little bit more time to ask questions before providing the answer that is either on the tip of your tongue or feels like is required instantaneously of you, you can reset and refocus. You can make sure that you lift your head above the problem to see the environment that the problem exists in.

The punchline for me about slowing down is first, don't do something. Sit there.

That sounds like Yogi Berra.

I know. We all know as business people that there are times when the thing to do is not just sit there but do something. The slowdown piece comes first. First, don't do something. Sit there. This is why reptile brain management and restoring our capacity to think multi-dimensionally must come first before deciding what to do. That leads to the second piece of the roadmap, which is to make peace with ambiguity and the value of multiple perspectives.

Self-management of anxiety and its tendency to seduce individuals into either/or thinking is a crucial life skill that applies to all parts of life. It applies to our personal relationships. It applies to our relationship with ourselves and dealing with our own inner critic. It applies to dealing with situations in business. It also applies to politics and governance. It applies across the board.

It's very important that you, as a business owner or executive, do not just value self-management of anxiety but model it. The more you are able to do that and the more fluent you are in managing your own anxiety, the more capable you'll be of facilitating group management of anxiety. Anxiety is contagious. There are ways to break the contagion that don't involve lecturing, shaming, blaming, or anything like that, which only adds to anxiety anyhow. Group management of anxiety is so that people move into a synergistic mindset rather than remaining blocked from thinking multi-dimensionally and solving things and challenges from a multi-dimensional perspective.

Business owners must not just value self-management of anxiety but also model it. This way, they can be more capable of managing their own anxiety and stop it from spreading within the team.

That is so true. Since we're using a bunch of quotes and clichés in this episode, I want to throw in the one, “If everyone agrees, I know we're wrong.” Part of what the doctor is talking about leads right into speaking up about your perspective or your lens with the humility that you know it carries a bias. You know that you are not seeing the whole picture. It's like what we talked about before. If everybody discusses what the problem is, the solutions will become a lot clearer because multiple people see the same problem from different angles. Having those conversations about, “Where am I coming from? What is my perspective that is going to guide the answers that I offer?” is important to making progress in finding a good, holistic perspective for achieving a solution.

It's like the old adage with five blind men describing an elephant. No matter where you're touching it, you're seeing something different. If everybody tells you what they're seeing, they'll probably be able to figure out, “We’re all at an elephant.” It's the same thing. There's also this idea that when there is time to solve a problem or if a problem doesn't require an imminent solution, defining the problem stage and identifying a solution stage should come at two separate times. If you can all spend one good, solid meeting, making sure that everybody gains everybody else's perspective, and sees the problem from a 360-degree panorama, then they can go take a shower. In the shower is where all the good ideas happen anyway.

Get away from it. Get your mind working on something else. When your mind is focused on something else, that's when it has its best ability to subconsciously process the connections that make for a great solution. Anytime that it's a major decision and you have time, break up the process of defining the problem and trying to achieve a solution into two separate meetings.

That is well said. That’s true and very effective. That leads to a starting place for building the tensions competence muscle in yourself and among your team. That starting place leads off with the understanding that battling over surface positions is a losing proposition. That is because if you are battling over whose surface position is right, it's guaranteed that you are going to generate an inferior solution.

Coercion and compromise are profoundly inferior problem-solving strategies. No matter how much you hear people talk about how important it is to compromise, I'm here to say to you that compromise is only useful as a backup plan or last resort. If true good-hearted attempts to synergize or collaborate fail, then compromise is the backup plan. Compromise is way far from the gold standard when it comes to problem-solving.

Surface positions represent something that is very rarely talked about. When I'm brought into businesses to help the executives do problem-solving, strategic planning, decision-making, and things along those lines, what I teach them to do is to look behind or underneath their surface positions to find what I refer to as the noble purpose behind their surface position regarding whatever the issue is that's being discussed. A noble purpose is the deep concerns and high intentions that someone has that lead to the surface position that they're advocating.

Usually, what people hear is the surface position without any clue about the deep concerns and high intentions that led to that position. The position is irrelevant, as controversial as that might sound. What's relevant and crucial is the noble purpose. It is getting out on the table the deep concerns and high intentions that led to that surface position. This is why it's crucial for us to surround ourselves with those who have different perspectives than ours, and then make a point of paying attention to them.

That is so true. I love that. Bringing this closer to this comprehensive picture of how we deal with this, what tensions competence makes possible is the attainment of best-in-class integrated solutions. It’s coming to the concept that we're making 1 plus 1 plus 1 equal 10 instead of 3. Despite the ambiguity and the incomplete and imperfect information, you're getting perspective. From all of the different perspectives, you can start to become holistic around the problem even in the case of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Once everybody's concerns and intentions are on the table, this is how you get that perspective.

One of the things that I like to say is when you're first going at this and you're having a hard time talking about your noble purpose and perspective, an easy way to start breaking the ice and getting you comfortable with this tension piece is to do a premortem on your solution. Pick any solution that's on the table and go through the room and discuss, “We followed that solution to the end and it didn't work. Why didn't it work?” That's a pretty unintimidating, unimposing way because it's not, “Anybody was wrong.” It's, “We followed this to the conclusion. Why didn't it work?”

By going through that exercise of imagining that something failed, people often find it easier to start thinking about where their perspective was in the first place. Eventually, the premortem doesn't have to be part of the thing. If you love it, that is great. Keep it. It's like doing your stretches before the workout. It's a way to get your mind thinking in that perspective and the foundational way by backing into it.

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To piggyback on one part of what you were saying, sharing a perspective that is pontification in disguise or lecturing in disguise won't move the process forward ever. The perspectives that Jason and I are talking about that do move the process forward are perspectives having to do with deep concerns and high intentions regarding the issue at hand. Those are the only useful perspectives.

BBV 15 | Tensions Competence

As a way of tying a bow around everything we're saying, I want to offer an image or an analogy. It has to do with a jigsaw puzzle. Let me unpack the imagery very briefly. It's imagery that captures the essence of multi-dimensional thinking, brainstorming, problem-solving, and decision-making. Here's how it goes. In the imagery, imagine that you've got a box full of jigsaw puzzle pieces. You've dumped the box out on a table and you're surrounded by your team. Everyone at the table is a team member.

The first thing in this imagery is that we're going to pretend that when all the pieces are dumped on the table, they're all dumped upside down. What that represents in this metaphor is that all we see are the surface positions that everyone has. The first thing we're doing is we're turning all the puzzle pieces right side up. What the right side up represents in this metaphor is we are looking underneath the surface positions and uncovering the deep concerns and high intentions that led to those surface positions. We're focusing not on the positions but on the concerns and intentions, on that level or aspect of perspectives.

We've now got all the puzzle pieces right side up. What we want to do in order to solve a problem, deal with a challenge, make a decision, or resolve a conflict is we have to understand what we're dealing with first. Treatment before a diagnosis is malpractice, whether in medicine, psychology, or business. In the metaphor, we've turned all the pieces right side up so everyone's deep concerns and high intentions are on the table. Sure enough, in the jigsaw puzzle metaphor, there are some people on the team who will naturally gravitate toward finding the corners of the puzzle, others who naturally gravitate toward finding the edges, and others who naturally gravitate toward finding pieces that connect in specific elements inside the puzzle.

If we're doing one-dimensional thinking, if we don't have tensions competence, then the group is going to polarize into the corners, edges, and elements. They're all going to fight over who's right when in fact, all of them are right. All of them are bringing crucial perspectives to the table. We assemble all of those deep concerns and high intentions into a coherent picture. That will then give us the frame of reference we need in order to gauge the usefulness of potential solutions, potential decisions, or potential outcomes.

The last part of the jigsaw puzzle analogy is that, unlike a real jigsaw puzzle where on the cover of the box, you see what the puzzle is supposed to look like when it's put together, in real-life jigsaw puzzles in business or any other problem-solving situation, you don't know what the picture is going to look like beforehand. You've got to be willing to all discover what that is together. Keep this jigsaw puzzle analogy in mind. I want to encourage you to start sharing this metaphor or this imagery with your team. My experience when I do this in the companies that I work with is that it helps people break out of either/or thinking and one-dimensional silos into synergistic thinking and problem-solving.

That’s brilliant. I like it. I'll never build a puzzle the same again. We've laid out this pretty robust roadmap to success. Let's talk about the key points that we take away from this. For me, it's this recognition that there is a lot of gray space between the quick snap decision-maker and the analysis paralysis analyst.

It's in that gray space that good things happen. Things happen when you're making snap decisions, and they're not always the best things. If you've got analysis paralysis, nothing's happening. That gray space or that huge chasm between these two extremes is where the good stuff happens. Getting comfortable in that ambiguity and knowing that if everybody is sharing their perspective within that ambiguity, the fog lifts substantially.

There’s a lot of gray space between the snap decision maker and the analysis-paralysis analyst. That’s where good things happen.

The other takeaway we want to leave you with, and I agree with you that I'd love to hear additional takeaways that our audience takes from this episode, is that multi-dimensional thinking through pooling a variety of lenses about deep concerns and high intentions regarding whatever it is that's being discussed is what sets the groundwork for superior brainstorming, problem-solving, and decision-making.

That's a good one.

We better wrap up on a good one then. On behalf of Jason Tuzinkewich and myself, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts and the top of our heads for reading this. We look forward to reading your thoughts, questions, topic suggestions, and other requests in the comments section. We also want to invite you to click the subscribe button so you can be notified immediately when we release future episodes.

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