Tension – Trust – Telos – Traction
Whether you are new to an organization, a role, or a vitally important leadership challenge, you won’t get much done without good relationships.
In this article, I provide some clear guidance for how to cultivate great relationships by attending to what I call the “4 T’s.”
Some will associate tension with stress, conflict, and strain – negative stuff. And when tension is a force that builds, persists, and becomes chronic, it is negative. It exhausts us, depletes our social, emotional, and mental capacities to function at the top of our game. But episodic moments of tension are normal, and they can be a sign of vitality – it depends on what we do with the experience.
Tension becomes something negative and unhealthy in relationships when it is not attended to as data. When we react to emerging, low-level tensions by ignoring, denying, or avoiding explicit notice of them, we let fears govern us. We reinforce a habitual tendency to avoid things that feel difficult. We come to see them as being beyond our control, as threatening our wellbeing.
Fear grows in the darkness. But when we cultivate the capacity (mindfulness) to simply notice emerging tension – in our body, in our mood, in our thoughts – let it be and accept its presence, then we are freer to discover its source, course, and meaning. We then become more able to see the “logic” of it, what it is about, the worries or troubled thoughts or feelings that must be addressed.
Try it in a relationship that you’d like to improve, and also in one that’s going well. Notice when you feel tension, what do you and others do with it? Does it evoke curiosity, seeking to understand, reflective dialogue? Do you give the conversation time to breath? Or do you “run” and try your best (you and others) to not discuss the “elephant in the room.”
If you have a readiness to navigate episodes of tension and conflict, to discover its meaning and work through it to resolution, it’s likely that this relationship is one in which trust levels are high. The opposite is also true. This is especially true of the trust we place in the motivations and intentions of others. Trust grows in light and transparency.
When we work through tense and difficult moments, making ourselves vulnerable, acknowledging we’re part of the problem, we co-create trust and safety. But there’s more to trust. We must also trust the competence of others, their insight, practical savvy, technical know-how, and their capacity to execute. Our mutual success depends on it. We must trust their humility and capacity to know their limits?
We’ll want to know that we can trust the integrity others to keep confidences and to be there for us when we need support. If this aspect of trust is lacking, we may still trust their commitment to working through differences and their competencies to be a reliable leader or partner. But most of us will want at least one other person with whom we can share this more intimate trust.
Notice the importance of emotions up to this point. The mood and emotional qualities of a relationship are foundational. We and others may express them too cautiously at times. But this blinds us to noticing tensions and building trust. When we use emotional experience as data, and suspend our biases long enough to understand what they’re telling us, our minds are better able to do their work.
The third “T,” telos, from the Greek τέλος for "end", "purpose", or "goal", characterizes the practical, purposive nature of relationships at work. Are we aligned on the ultimate or strategic aims of our work together? We may drift from such alignment in the course of execution. It may seem clear at the outset, but then we may adaptively redefine our purpose and ends based upon experience and feedback.
This is the most rational-logical element of the 4 T’s. In the early “forming” stage of a team, for example, we observe a rather formal quality of interpersonal dynamics characterized by politeness, deference to authority, and artificial harmony. As work intensifies, a “storming” stage emerges, differences manifest. They register cognitively, but also emotionally as tension, which becomes the first real test of trust.
In the storming stage, as we put our thoughts, feelings, concerns, and points of view on the table. We can choose to examine them or retreat. When we’re able to face up to the differences, use emotions as data to inform our deliberations, we are usually able to improve our knowledge of one another, even as we adaptively redefine a “truer” version of our telos.
Through our emerging capacities to navigate difference and work through conflict, we implicitly create normatively positive, constructive ways to reckon with our differences – that’s the “norming” stage. These norms of interaction, procedure, and mutual respect deepen trust and create a more authentic quality of engagement. As this takes shape, we enter the “performing” in which we gain traction.
Traction is well-aligned action, interdependent action. It’s gained, sustained, and lost on a daily basis. It’s the discipline of executional focus. When we drift in ways that cause us to lose focus, momentum, and efficiency. We may be tempted to react poorly, blaming others and defending others. But now, with greater confidence, we adaptively notice, examine, and learn from the tension rather than run from it.
Over time, the normatively positive response more prevails. We will come trust our capacity to welcome feedback, view issues with curiosity, thereby allocating more mental bandwidth to positive, solution-focused thinking. This is the heart of great relationships; it’s believing that “we’ll survive the tension if we face it squarely with fresh eyes, and we’ll come out the other side in a better place.”
This discussion describes the work that must be done to forge and maintain great relationships at work, but also outside of work. The effort required consists in self-managing and learning to jointly monitor and manage the state of the 4 T’s. We do it by stepping back, reflecting on the dynamics of interaction (what’s happening and how’s it feeling?), by asking about the state of Tension, Trust, Telos, and Traction that we’re currently experiencing, and by the proper action even when it’s difficult.