Appreciating tensions: the next stage of leadership development

The Corona pandemic has shown us that the most important thing in the coming years will be to find ways to deal successfully with the demands of complexity. In his groundbreaking book ‚Reinventing Organizations’, Frédéric Laloux identifies a total of three breakthroughs that are necessary to reach the next stage of leadership:

  1. Wholeness: In addition to the rationality of business administration, this also includes valuing and integrating the emotions, intuition, attitudes and stories of all employees.
  2. Orientation to meaning and purpose via an evolutionary purpose that goes beyond a vision statement and at the same time provides a gauge for all decisions made by an organization.
  3. Self-management is by no means a new invention, but a long-established principle of living systems in nature: acting with just enough order to focus energy– but without structures that slow down adaptation and learning.

How to succeed in complexity with ease

We observe that precisely those organizations that have already addressed wholeness and self-management before the crisis, as well as those that follow a clear purpose, are particularly resilient in crisis situations. These teams and their managers have consciously addressed the question of how they contribute to business success, and how they interact with their customers and employees as well as society. Long smiled at as fair-weather organizations, they show that practiced ownership and adaptability are paying off. Their meeting and decision-making formats work virtually as well as in presence, and the necessary work is implemented autonomously by those responsible for the roles – based on good conversations and a high degree of reliability. Thus, production continues to run smoothly – and tensions are positively appreciated and worked through whenever they arise.

Breaking new grounds from tensions

This is an important point: no matter how authentic and empathetic we may be, if we fail to break new ground at the crucial, critical moment of a tension or conflict, we will not be able to tap into the organization’s potential.

We realize that we can constructively use tensions in conflicts for development – our own, that of our teams, and ultimately that of the entire organization. We can define them as the difference between what is and what could be. In this sense, they are positive and directional. In tensions lies the valuable potential for sustainable transformation. If we succeed in this reframing, i.e. the reconsideration of conflicts, we are well on our way.

Conflicts providing opportunities to change

When tensions arise in terms of interpersonal relations – for example, in the form of conflicts within a team or with a supervisor – we are particularly challenged. In most cases, we hardly manage to calmly address our conflict partners about their behavior and its effect on us. Too much depends on the decision-making power of the superior. Most of us have forgotten (or never learned) how to argue properly. Due to the general need for harmony, which already arises in family structures, we avoid conflicts, swallow vulnerabilities and hope that the conflict will resolve itself. This need for harmony is also a typical characteristic of agile organizations. We forget that the other person cannot know our thoughts and feelings. They lie in our individual inner world. As a result, we miss the opportunity to give them the chance to change their behavior and to respond to us, and thus to develop ourselves further.

Releasing tensions with nonviolent communication

One method that has proven effective for optimizing communication especially in conflicts, is so-called nonviolent communication.

The principle of nonviolent communication was developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. At the time, he was involved with the American civil rights movement and his approaches helped to overcome racial segregation in institutions. The concept can be used in all kinds of areas – be it in education, in personal relations or in organizations.

It allows us to recognize the needs and feelings of our conversation partners – especially in conflicts. Rosenberg speaks of two types of empathy: that towards others and that towards ourselves, self-empathy. Conscious of this multi-dimensionality, nonviolent communication enables us

  • to overcome moral judgments about the communication partner and his or her behavior, and to develop toward judgment-free, complete acceptance of the other person,
  • to first pay attention to our own thoughts, feelings, to our attitude,
  • to make requests instead of demands: By doing so, we avoid giving instructions, issuing orders, or delegating decisions that we would have to make ourselves.

In a team: Acting in harmony with the environment but independent of external influences

The principle of dealing with tensions and conflicts in an appreciative manner can also be transferred to organizations overall. Different approaches to self-management are available for this. Whether the work system introduced is called sociocracy, sociocracy 3.0 or holacracy is not decisive – the different concepts have some common features that are helpful in shaping individual and organizational development in harmony with the environment but largely independent of external influences:

  • a structure of circles (rather than hierarchies) in which teams organize themselves,
  • purpose-driven work that seamlessly breaks down to all teams and individuals, becoming the barometer for individual decisions,
  • work in roles that are structured according to the tasks at hand and to which clear responsibilities are assigned,
  • transparent meetings that build on and systematically work through tensions, seen as positive and enabling learning between roles and individuals,
  • decisions based on the consent principle, which gives the respective role the decision-making power, and allows other roles to object only if there is a threat of harm, and puts a stop to ‘everyone decides’ (consensus)
  • and, applying the pull principle: Only where there is a real need, action is taken or investments are made. This rules out prescribed programs and minimizes waste.

Learning journey in small individual steps

Now, it is important to recognize that established organizations cannot switch from ‘hierarchy’ to ‘self-management’ overnight. For leaders, teams and companies that currently feel pressure or unease that something might not be running smoothly in their organization, this is an invitation to embark on a learning journey towards an organization that sees itself as a living organism, and sets off into the future with ease and resilience.

We have designed and implemented corresponding learning journeys with customers in various industries – such as software development, financial services or healthcare. You can find out more about this in our book ‘Kommunikation neu gedacht’ (‘Re-imagining communication). We would also be happy to present our communication model to you personally – feel free to contact us any time!

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