About Creative Tension in the Workplace

Workplace tension can lead to creativity, as long as it doesn't get personal.

Workplace tension can lead to creativity, as long as it doesn't get personal.

Creativity doesn’t just happen on its own. It needs a spark. And spark is another word for tension. Just like in personal relationships, where sparks can fly in either a good way or in a way that’s destructive, tension in work relationships can lead to creativity, but, if not properly managed, can be destructive.


Creative tension is the friction that arises when people involved in a discussion or a project have ideas that cannot coexist. For example, if a company has a limited advertising budget and one team member advocates expanding marketing into a wider area while another pushes a strategy of advertising more intensely in a limited geographic area, a natural tension will arise between the two sides. Creative tension, however, focuses on ideas, not the people who present them.

How It Helps Innovation

Tension may feel unpleasant, but if it’s focused on problem solving, it can spur creativity. Defending your position forces you to think hard about the likely outcomes, and you may realize that some are not ideal. If you listen objectively as the other person argues her position, you may find that elements of her proposal make good sense. Sometimes the best answer comes from a hybrid of the ideas presented by two or more people. In other cases, the discussion gives birth to a new idea that is completely different from the position that either side espoused in the beginning.

Good Tension Versus Harmful Conflict

Not all workplace tension is healthy and productive. If people start taking sides or attacking each other on personal level, things have gone awry. To avoid this dangerous path, keep the conversation focused on the project, goals and likely outcome. Use “we,” “us” and “our” instead of “I,” “me” and “my.” Avoid or stop conversations that revive past grievances or drift into personal attacks or pettiness, such as “If we do that, they’ll get all the credit.”

Diffusing Tension

The best way to diffuse tension is to remind everyone that you have a common goal: the best possible outcome for the project, the team and the company. Point out similarities between the various proposals on the table and throw in a little humor if possible. If you’re the supervisor, avoid the temptation to take sides. Try to be even-handed and compliment all parties for their hard work and creativity. Encourage participants to look for common ground -- objectives or basic facts that they agree on. They may find that their position have a lot more in common than they realize.

About the Author

A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.

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