Embrace Tension to Build a Stronger Team


Tension is inevitable. According to IDEO Senior Director of Global Learning and Development Heather Currier Hunt, “human beings are engines for tensions, whether that’s in creating them or being affected by them.” Despite their constant presence, we tend to avoid them, sweep them under the rug, and quickly return to harmony and consensus because tension is uncomfortable.

Heather wants you to stop running from tensions and start embracing them because beyond being inevitable—they’re valuable. “Tension is a hallmark of innovative organizations,” says Heather, because diversity generates tension as a matter of course and, “when you have different perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences, you have new ideas.”

In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, she reframes tension as a learning opportunity that can take ideas and teams to a better place and provides her favorite tips and tricks for learning to embrace tensions in the workplace.


Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts


Create a Culture of Humility & Curiosity

Before teams and organizations can productively navigate tensions, the right cultural conditions need to be in place. For Heather, this means establishing psychological safety. According to the work of Harvard professor Amy Edmonson, psychological safety is the “shared belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” What this translates to is a willingness to speak up. It can feel risky to share an idea with others, to point out issues, errors, or blindspots—but in a psychologically safe environment these behaviors are not only possible, they’re encouraged. Often tensions are swept under the rug because it’s uncomfortable to address them, but we need to be able to name them with others before we can use them to our benefit.

To create psychological safety with your team, Heather begins with mindsets and behaviors you want to model and encourage in others. Her advice is to lean into humility and curiosity. Humility means admitting when you don’t know the answers, being willing to be wrong, and sharing your own struggles or uncertainties with others. It’s a willingness to share your own limitations, which in turn makes others more comfortable to share theirs. Curiosity is an openness to learning, seeking out more information, and asking more questions, without knowing where things will lead. Curiosity is the difference between building a prototype or running an experiment to validate an idea vs. building one to learn what is and is not working with your idea.


Reinforce Psychological Safety

Getting tangible, Heather also has a few concrete actions you can take to foster safe conditions.

Define Ground Rules and Team Agreements

Before diving right into the work with a team, take the time to get on the same foot by creating team agreements and setting expectations.” This is your go-fast-to-go-slow moment,” says Heather. At the start of a project or when a new team forms, Heather holds group and individual conversations to set expectations for the project and the role that everyone plays within it. Having these conversations also gives team members the opportunity to share their own expectations, what they hope to contribute, and how they would like to grow through the project, personally or professionally.

Reframe Failure as a Learning Opportunity

Next, if you hit an obstacle or something fails along the way, rather than seeing it as a negative, ask what insight you can take away and use to make your idea stronger as a result. Look for learning opportunities when things go awry to reinforce psychological safety by demonstrating that it’s ok to take risks because it’s safe to fail.

Give, Receive, and Incorporate Feedback Regularly

Lastly, “feedback, feedback, feedback—give it, receive it, incorporate it,” says Heather. This isn’t about sticking to the mandatory bi-annual feedback conducted throughout the organization, it’s something that teams should be doing all the time. “If you have feedback that is going to make someone more successful, it is your duty to deliver it to them,” she says. Giving productive feedback shows your commitment to others and receiving it demonstrates the willingness to learn and grow. After delivering any feedback, be sure to stay present with the other person. Heather encourages that you be a “partner to that person in helping them make it better.”


“Belonging gives us a sense of natural acceptance, ownership, and agency within a group without requiring us to be the same as everyone else around us.”


Move from Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces

When it comes to building psychologically safe spaces, there’s a catch. “When these spaces are designed in a homogenous culture, they are engineered to prioritize comfort and ensure harmony,” says Heather. Groups with little diversity may exhibit the traits of a psychologically safe environment. They may readily contribute ideas and speak their mind, but there is rarely as much tension as there is in a diverse team.

For Heather, it’s important that we move from safe spaces to brave spaces. A brave space expects difference and is optimized to foster respect for these differences. Different backgrounds will lead to contrasting opinions and perspectives, and diversity needs to include all forms of difference (cognitive skills, craft, race, gender, mindsets, etc...). Most importantly, brave spaces hold people accountable for learning about the differences they encounter so a group can evolve and grow. In a brave space people feel more than included—they feel like they belong.

Belonging gives us a sense of natural acceptance, ownership, and agency within a group without requiring us to be exactly the same as everyone else around us. Verna Myers, VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, has said, “diversity is getting invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” Extending the metaphor, Heather says belonging “is then when you get to choose the music and let your freak-flag fly.”

When people feel like they belong, they know that it is precisely their differences that add value to the group, even when these differences cause tension. It’s in brave spaces, characterized by a sense of belonging, that teams can tap into the transformative power that tensions contain to drive change, innovation, and growth.

Learn to harness the power of tension to build a more innovative team in Heather’s online course Cultivating Creative Collaboration.

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