Noise in the system

This blog is about considering your relationship with tension, and the suggestion that it is a useful guide.

If we ignore noise in the system eventually something will break. This is true for bodies, machines, organisations and our planet.

The noise is there for a reason. It is feedback that something isn’t quite right. Sometimes the noise is visible, sometimes audible, and sometimes felt. It is a message carrier providing clues for where the system needs energy and attention.

In the domain of leadership, I call this The Tension Compass. The tension might be between people, functions and stakeholders. It might be in systems and processes. The tension is guidance for leaders about where their energy and attention are required.

We have internal and external Tension Compasses.

The Internal Tension Compass is that gut feeling, or the worry in your head keeping you awake at night. It’s the niggle of your chatter, and the conversation you know you need to have but are avoiding.

The External Tension Compass is the repeated whispers in the kitchen and the corridor conversations with a certain candour. It’s the friction in your team, and the elephant in the room.

There are always hotspots to notice.

Engaging in tension

Leaders are paid to make things happen. To respond to hotspots and to have difficult conversations. But difficult conversations are uncomfortable, and it can be easier to avoid and escape them than to engage with them.

Engaging in tension is about curiosity, enquiry, listening and learning first. It’s about seeing a problem as information rather than as something to fix.

Engaging in tension is a practice of noticing what is really going on and moving Towards Safer Uncertainty. It’s about:

  • Remaining present with reality rather than denying, pretending or defending in a misguided hope for security.

  • Letting life be life, and letting it be a guide - much like a compass

  • Recognising our fears and vulnerabilities while trusting our resilience, resourcefulness, and the process of change and evolution.

Engaging with difficult things and difficult conversations as a leader is largely about confidence. I don’t think this is given enough credence in executive development programs. While expanding one's knowledge is important, it is meaningless in an organisation context, without application. The practice of doing, reviewing, learning and refining is where confidence and results come from.

The more you practice engaging in tension, the more you feel safer in navigating uncertainty.

Let’s do something with it – Tension Compass

The Internal Tension Compass - Focusing

Accessing the Internal Tension Compass is about stopping and creating space to listen to the niggles, chatter and feedback of your body-based wisdom. A starting place for this is to:

  • Find a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted

  • Ground yourself through 6-10 deep breaths

  • Notice where your thoughts and feelings go when you ask the questions:

    • What is bothering me about work at the moment?

    • What seems to be asking for my energy and attention?

    • What am I avoiding?

    • How am I best to engage with that tension?

For a deeper practice use the Focusing technique outlined in a previous blog, and focus on work related concerns.

The External Tension Compass - Hotspots

Accessing the External Tension Compass is about being present and noticing all the hotspots in your organisational world. Noticing the unspoken tension between people and functions. Noticing the friction in relationships and seemingly competing departmental objectives. You will probably be aware of many already, so a starting place for this is to:

  • Mind map or list the hotspots you are aware of

  • Consider your purpose in terms of what you are trying to achieve for:

    • your organisation

    • your team/s

    • yourself

  • Consider how you are best to engage with that tension

Sometimes this can be overwhelming. Here’s a stakeholder mapping exercise that uses the Tension Compass to bring some clarity to your key relationships.

  • Think about the purpose of your job, or a project area within it that you want to make progress with

  • Draw a stakeholder mapping grid for the work as shown

  • Place the relevant stakeholders in the appropriate quadrant

  • Colour and size the stakeholders to represent the quality and importance of the relationship

Some useful considerations to start with:

  • What 4-5 relationships are imperative?

  • What is the current quality of relationship with those 4-5 imperative people?

  • Considering your objectives, what do you need the quality of the relationship to be? 

  • What is the gap?

  • How might you begin closing any gaps?

  • What conversations will be required?

If you’d like some help in considering how to engage with tension areas, including difficult relationships and conversations, drop me a line.



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Photo by Aditya Wardhana on Unsplash

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