Let's talk about the myth of "Healthy Tension" in our workplaces

The notion of “healthy tension” is misleading, and it’s time we stop using it to dress up work environments that lack trust and alignment and to normalize relationships that are anything but healthy.

Let's talk about the myth of "Healthy Tension" in our workplaces

We've probably all heard this theory that there's some sort of magical, propulsive force in the "healthy tension" between teams. The concept assumes that different functional teams, at their core, have opposing priorities: Product wants to get great stuff out to customers, fast. Engineering, on the other hand, only cares about stability and reliability. Marketing prioritizes long-term brand perception, Sales just wants to close deals now. Those teams are pulling in different directions, challenging each other's work, and ultimately—that’s the theory—this tension leads to a product that is both user-centric and technically sound, or a go-to-market approach that serves short- and long-term needs.

But are your teams really following fundamentally different goals? And should they?

I don’t think so.

Tension is unhealthy, and it is holding you back

When I hear folks use the term “healthy tension” to describe the relationship between their teams, too often, that relationship isn’t actually healthy. Instead, we see a lack of trust, a breakdown in communication, and serious struggles in collaboration.

Are your teams in a constant state of competition, putting lots of energy into proving one’s rightness over the other? Does crucial information not make it to the right people on other teams? If something goes wrong, is everyone quick to blame the other side? If so, there’s tension between your teams—but that tension isn’t productive. And it sure as heck isn’t healthy either. For most of us, tension in the workplace is exhausting; it takes away time and energy from doing our actual work, and it’s detrimental to our mental health.

But instead of looking at these broken relationships between teams (and doing whatever we can to fix them), the business world has somehow accepted that working in a state of tension is normal, and we’ve even subscribed to the myth that it’s beneficial to our teams and our businesses. It’s about time we put that myth to rest. 

The best teams work in alignment, not in a state of tension

The most successful (and also the most fun) teams I’ve ever worked with didn’t operate in a state of tension. Instead, they recognized that the key to business success is creating alignment across teams. They were in sync on the organization’s goals, had a deep understanding of how each function contributes to achieving them, and—perhaps most importantly—they truly trusted the humans on the other teams.

Did we disagree occasionally? Of course we did! But true disagreements were actually quite rare. And when they did happen, they were productive, respectful, and never tense.

How did we get there? There are a few crucial practices that help promote trust and alignment across teams:

1. Make planning a true cross-functional effort

When planning happens in silos, without considering how one team’s plans might impact others, it’s impossible to create alignment. Instead, make planning and goal-setting a cross-functional effort from the get-go. There are plenty of frameworks that can help this process, and my former colleague Rian van der Merve shares how we made planning and goal setting a collaborative effort between Leadership (senior/executive leaders of a business unit) and Teams (people executing the actual work.)

2. Develop a deep understanding of other team’s priorities and how they matter to the business

An outstanding product manager understands why scalability and reliability can’t be an afterthought, and a good engineering manager knows that time-to-market matters. A great sales leader knows that marketing’s brand-building work is powerful in the long term, even if it doesn’t generate short-term leads. And a great marketer knows that there are times in the year when your sales colleagues really count on your team. 

Great leaders understand that their primary goal isn’t to tip the balance in favor of their own department; it’s about moving the overall business forward. To do that, you must know how to communicate your team’s goals and challenges, but you must be just as good at understanding other team’s contributions to the business. 

3. Ditch the blame game

When your team falls into the habit of finger-pointing at the other side, stop that behavior in its tracks. The best teams feel shared ownership of their projects. If something goes wrong, they share that responsibility and actively think about how everyone can do their part to improve next time.

4. Truly get to know the humans on other teams

Building connections and trust between teams only works if the humans on them have a chance to connect and truly get to know each other—and as a leader, it’s your job to give them the space to do that. When you think about team building, actively consider how you can also foster social time across teams.

Let’s say goodbye to celebrating corporate tug of war

I think it’s time we stop celebrating unhealthy tension between teams and recognize that real progress isn’t made when teams are pulling against each other like a corporate tug of war. It’s made when they are aligned on their goals, and pull in the same direction, together.