The critical difference between an effective and an ineffective leader lies in their ability to regulate the tension held by themselves & others
Can you regulate the tension held by yourself & others?
Tension is a conflict between what our mind needs or values vs what it has instead.
Imagine a piece of music with tension. When we hear such music, our mind needs or values a sense of resolution. Thus, we want or expect the music to end on a note that can give us such resolution. Until this happens, tension is sustained.
As a leader you probably have needs or values that go unfulfilled or get violated every day.
The Founders I have coached typically had 3 kinds of needs...
Are you able to effectively regulate or release these tensions, both in yourself as well as the stakeholders around you?
One way to find out is to watch ourselves behave in one of the following 5 ways:
Do you remember the last time you or your team behaved in one of the above ways? If you do, then you now know that you and your team were trying to cope with tension.
As human beings, we can withstand or even feel motivated by a certain amount of tension. However, if we experience too much tension, we start to feel enough discomfort or overwhelm such that we can’t help but focus solely on coping with our tension.
To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the above behaviors. They are natural reactions to too much tension. The question is “Do they effectively release or regulate our tension?” The answer is often a “no.”
The fact of the matter is, if we’re stuck unable to regulate our tension, we have no room in our mind with which to think and see clearly. When we cannot think and see clearly, we cannot accurately reflect on ourselves and our perception of others, either. This means we also lack the kind of self-awareness that can expose our biases and blindspots. While we’re in such a state, how can we behave and make decisions with confidence? In fact, it would be scary if we did behave and make decisions with confidence.
That’s not all.
If our team is stuck unable to regulate their tension, they have no room in their mind with which to tolerate the discomfort of differing perspectives or make an effort to understand what lies underneath such differences so as to co-produce a solution. Such co-production of solutions, the kind where all involved parties share a sense of personal ownership and motivation to carry out, lies at the heart of managing interpersonal conflicts, improving team performance, and working together with less effort & energy drain. Yet, they’re simply not in a state of mind to be able to effectively engage in such a process.
Even that’s not all.
If we cannot regulate our tension, we’re likely to continue practicing our coping behaviors, and some of these coping behaviors can easily worsen the tension held by other people. When this happens, other people are more likely to also respond with coping behaviors, which can, in turn, worsen our own tension, thus creating a vicious cycle. Is this productive or counter-productive?
For you and your team to be effective, you have to interact with each other in ways that regulate the tension held by yourself and your team. I refer to this as engaging in an empathic conversation with each other.
Here’s why I call it that.
First of all, when we experience too much tension, we are naturally driven to not empathize. What does it mean to be not empathizing?
With that in mind, take a look at the graphical depictions of the 5 typical ways we behave under too much tension.
Hopefully you can see why they are all slight variations of not empathizing.
Now then, what does it mean to be empathizing?
To enage in an empathic conversation is to converse so as to move ourselves from a) not empathizing with each other to b) empathizing with each other. The only way we can do this is by better understanding the unfulfilled needs & violated values we all have, and also better behaving in ways that fulfill those needs & realize those values.
If we can engage ourselves in an empathic conversation, we reduce our tendency to behave in counter-productive ways. In doing so, we also make room in our mind to think and see more clearly. When we can think and see more clearly, we can also more effectively reflect on ourselves and our perception of others. Such reflections help us develop greater self-awareness. The kind of awareness that exposes what we previously didn’t see about ourselves and others. The kind of awareness that not only uncovers the fears and concerns we and others have, but also the strengths and values as well. It is in clearly organizing the breadth and depth of such knowledge of self and other, that we come to behave and make decisions with confidence.
That’s not all.
If we can engage others in an empathic conversation, we make the necessary room in their mind to pique their natural creativity, curiosity, and engagement in place of their counter-productive behaviors. In doing so, we make it more likely for them to feel enough safety, security, and stability to be willing and able to not only tolerate the discomfort of our differing perspectives, but also make an effort to understand what lies underneath such differences so as to co-produce a solution. Such co-production of solutions, the kind where both parties share a sense of personal ownership, lies at the heart of managing interpersonal conflicts, improving team performance, and leading with less effort & energy drain.
My job is to guide you on your journey of learning to engage yourself and others in empathic conversations. I will do this by engaging you in an empathic conversation so you can experience for yourself, the power of effective tension regulation. I will also keep you accountable for your own practice so you can eventually continue on your journey without me.
Imagine leaving each coaching session with a clear mind with which to think and see. A mind filled with the clarity of knowing exactly what you have to do next. A mind with enough room to face the next unexpected with ease. How much more healthy and productive might you be?
Now also imagine returning to each coaching session having seen positive impact, however small, in not only how your co-founders or employees respond to you, but also how you feel at the end of each day reflecting on the progress you have made. How much more fulfilled and confident would you feel about your work and your company?
Unfortunately, most of us are mired in tension. Our minds are cluttered with unproductive and manipulative thoughts, trying to convince other people of our ways or to fix all that is wrong about others and our organizations. This breeds not only anxiety and frustration, but also resentment and indignance, creating more tension in our lives, thus creating a vicious cycle.
That’s not all.
We don’t even take time to pause and reflect on this vicious cycle. In fact, we often confuse reflection with rumination, letting our minds race and overwhelm us with even greater anxiety.
The more anxiety we experience, the more difficult it becomes for us to think, communicate, or converse clearly and effectively. This also effects those around us to feel too confused and insecure to provide effective support.
Without the effective support of those around us, we start feeling isolated and overwhelmed, which leads us to even greater anxiety, thus creating yet another vicious cycle.
Even that’s not all.
As everyone’s tension builds up, it’s likely that our most basic and critical human needs are going unfulfilled, bit by bit, day by day. For example, despite best intentions by ourselves and others, the following basic needs may be going unfulfilled:
- Our need for clarity, direction, and progress.
- Our need to feel respected, understood, recognized, appreciated, or to matter.
- Our need for certainty and trust.
As these needs go unfulfilled, it’s also likely that you and your team are...
- Feeling confused, intimidated, demotivated, or drained by each other.
- Building up a sense of contempt, resentment, or indignance against each other.
- Losing respect and trust in each other.
In other words, you and your team are dying by a thousand cuts. In the midst of all this, how can you be effective? How can your team be effective?
It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. The solution to effective leadership is not to work harder in behaving in one of the 5 typical ways we respond to tension. It is to radically shift our approach by engaging ourselves and others in an empathic conversation. It is to effectively regulate the tension we and others hold.
Can you learn to do this over night? No. It will take time, practice, and reflection. But you will never learn if you don’t choose to do so.