Creating Constructive Tension


Issue: As a leader, how do you create constructive tension while maintaining trust and avoiding paralysis?

What is constructive tension?
Constructive tension is a dynamic recognizes the value of healthy pressure within a working relationship, one that encourages honest discussions, calls for passionate debate, and demands excellence while maintaining professionalism. The tension, or pressure, constructively aids in achieving goals. Constructive tension is not a relationship or condition devoid of conflict.

It is easy to view tension as a negative, a distraction, a toxic condition, which can diminish trust and lead to stagnation or rigidity. Surprisingly, preventing tension can create the same level of toxicity, mistrust, and stagnation. So, how do you find the right balance? Let’s look at two frameworks of meetings between a private equity leader, a private equity operations leader, and a company CEO – the “current” framework and a more “productive” framework.


Setting The Agenda
Under the current framework, when a Private Equity leader meets with a company, the CEO typically sets the meeting’s agenda. To avoid embarrassment, CEO choses to discuss “safe topics” because he doesn’t trust his fellow meeting participants with issues that may highlight his weaknesses/blind spots or company’s points of pain. In this case, the CEO is looking for an audience to check the box rather than an audience to provide actionable insight. In this scenario, the CEO takes things personally and anticipates drama.

PE Leader does not contribute to setting the agenda – either through lack of CEO’s collaboration or as a result of his own style (the element of surprise, a passive aggressive stance). If the PE Leader doesn’t feel he is being heard, he can make it personal.

Operations Leader approves the agenda by default. He may occasionally request that an agenda item be added or removed to avoid conflict between CEO and PE Leader. Provides just enough cover for CEO and PE Leader to pivot the conversation or end the meeting without things getting too personal.

Cycle Of The Current Meeting
Under the current framework, there is a build up of tension, which begins with the CEO discussing safe topics. CEO anticipates personal attacks by PE Leader, while hoping Oversight Leader will step in and provide coverage/protect and redirect the conversation, if necessary.

PE Leader’s tension level rises as he anticipates, and then perceives, an inauthentic discussion – only the good news, with no forward progress or sense of urgency in resolving points of pain. He isn’t being heard. As a result, PE Leader attempts to redirect the discussion. He anticipates Oversight Leader stepping in to protect CEO, so he hardens his stance.

Oversight Leader has already anticipated problems and devotes his energy towards preventing an escalation. Not able to fully focus on global or specific solutions. Doesn’t feel the meeting will be productive – meeting will result in more work due to debriefing sessions. Very draining.

All parties anticipate what they will say during debriefing sessions. No trust between parties:

CEO doesn’t trust PE Leader or Oversight Leader
PE Leader doesn’t trust CEO or Oversight Leader
Oversight Leader doesn’t trust CEO or PE Leader

Debriefing Sessions
The honest/authentic conversations are held during the separate debriefing sessions/mediation sessions. Very draining for all parties with little, to no progress towards goal. Parties not able to “left off steam” or engage in building trust.


A “healthy” or productive meeting is a welcome exchange of ideas in which each participant freely and gladly contributes their time and talent towards a mutual goal. They believe in the goal but may disagree on how to attain that goal. All parties are able to discuss points of pain sustained by a firm foundation of trust and without fear of personal attacks, retribution, or loss of credibility/job. Participants passionately discuss and debate strategy and data points for the greater good of reaching their mutual goal with the best possible outcome.

Cycle Of A Productive Meeting
Buy-in on agenda items, thoughtful discussion, passionate debate, consensus on strategy, action items, agenda for next meeting.

How To Get From The Current Framework To A Productive Framework
All leaders must equally buy-in to the meeting’s agenda. Something casual but like:

“We have scheduled a one hour meeting for next Thursday afternoon. Due to time constraints, let’s take up one or two items during this meeting. What would you like to discuss or report on? Happy to schedule another meeting soon to chat about any additional topics you’d like to discuss.”

Goal: Work to keep the discussion from moving away from the agenda items. Having a goal helps – at the end of the meeting we should have consensus on this item, etc. Work on limiting distractions, not passion. Be transparent about what you will be discussing and what items will be discussed in a conversation a few days from this meeting, if necessary. It will take some time to get use to this new pattern.

Goal: Allow enough time to engage in a thoughtful discussion, with sufficient time to ramp up and then decompress, so that trust can be rebuilt/strengthened.

Goal: Model productive/not personal ways of framing issues for further discussion without making judgments about who is right or who is wrong. Focus on data and strategy, rather than “my ideas” without a framework to support them. Ask questions of both sides to tease out fears and better understand viewpoints.

Debriefing Sessions
Goal: Debriefing sessions should be shorter and less closely timed to the meeting so that participants can gain some prospective. Provide less color coverage during debriefing sessions so they provide less “exciting” feedback and become less attractive. Try to provide more “grounded” feedback.