Constructive Tension: The Cornerstone to Creativity

Some teams try to avoid conflict and tension in the belief that it contributes to negativity in the workplace.  While this is certainly a possibility for a poorly managed team, conflict is an important and valuable aspect to the creative process because it raises diverse views, which can lead to otherwise unexplored ideas and processes. In a well-managed team, healthy conflict leads to constructive tension. Instead of causing stress and anxiety, constructive tension propels the team to further discussion and excitement about moving from point A to point B. It creates the space for creativity and innovation and leads to productive, positive outcomes.[1]

Peter Senge describes constructive tension, also called creative tension, as the “gap between vision and current reality”. It is where possibility and constraint meet and is vital to create peak performing organizations. [2]  For this necessary and delicate balance to exist, employees must feel that there is value in filling the gap. They need to believe that, as part of the team, their participation matters and that they directly contribute to the actions needed to move from their current reality to the articulated vision. Without this gap and buy-in from employees, there would be little incentive or desire to take the action needed to move from vision to reality. [3]   

Being comfortable with creative tension is a must for effective managers. To achieve this, organizations need to create a “conflict positive” environment where differences are encouraged and discussed freely.[4] Creating a balance between two seemingly opposed ideas, such as expecting maximum work performance while at the same time encouraging professional development, is critical to improve both results and relationships.[5] This calls for ambidextrous leadership, which recognizes the inevitability of conflict, maintains focus on ideas instead of individual, and understands that conflict exists on a continuum. These leaders recognize their strengths and where they are lacking, engage others with diverse skills to foster and maintain constructive conflict, and create processes to work toward shared goals.[6]

Important to ensuring constructive versus destructive tension is balance: too little tension and there is no incentive to take risks or actively engage; too much, and it goes from being constructive to anxiety-inducing.[7] Research strongly supports the link between constructive tension and creativity and innovation, with some studies finding that competition can be as valuable as collaboration.[8]  Among the benefits of constructive tension are increased focus, which helps maintain critical productivity, as well as greater innovation and out-of-the-box thinking to get the job done and move it towards the desired future state.[9] Conversely, if tension stifles rather than encourages creatively, team members can become concerned about their psychological safety, lose trust in one another, adopt a groupthink attitude, or otherwise lose confidence and fear failure. [10]

A key attribute essential to create and maintain constructive tension is transparency. When everyone is on the same page and shares the same understanding of what is happening, employee buy-in is high, and the team maximizes the benefits of constructive tension.[11]  In fact, employees identify transparency as the number-one contributing factor to workplace happiness.[12] Everyone knows and understands how their contributions affect the ability to achieve their collective vision and keeps them focused on the same target.[13] Genuinely transparent organizations encourage information sharing, which improves employee relationships through better ideas and creative problem-solving. Employees also are more likely to promote the company and its products when they have had a role in its successes. Customer relationships also are stronger when companies adhere to the values they proclaim and clearly report how they demonstrate their support for their values. [14] This also contributes to profitability: most consumers (94%) saying they would be loyal to a brand that offers complete transparency, [15] with a similar number (90%) saying they would stop purchasing products from brands that lack clarity.[16] Further, 81% of consumers are willing to try a brand’s “entire portfolio of products” if the brand is transparent, and 73% are willing to spend more for products that offer complete transparency.[17]

Tension exists in all workplaces, and the way it is managed determines how meaningful the resolution and outcomes will be.[18] Constructive tension is inexorably intertwined with creativity and innovation and contributes heavily to success.  History is rife with examples of businesses that failed due to a lack of change (e.g., Blockbusters, Blackberry, Kodak, MySpace)[19] or transparency (e.g., AIG, Enron, Tyco). This issue continues to across sectors today.[20] Consumers have spoken – shouted! – and organizations that listen and respond will reap the rewards of their loyalty, while those who don’t come under greater scrutiny and risk the fate of these former powerhouses who have become synonymous with failure and continue to exist only as a footnote in business texts.


[1] Isaksen, S.G. & Ekvall, G. (2010). Managing for innovation: The two faces of tension in creative climates. Creativity and Innovation Management, 19, 73-88.

[2] McGoff, C. (2017, Nov. 30). This psychological theory will motivate your team to achieve more in 2018. Inc.

[3] McGoff

[4] Isaksen & Ekvall

[5] (https://steverudolphcoaching.com/constructive-tension/)

[6] DeGraff, J. (2018, Dec 19). The creative power of constructive conflict. Psychology Today.

[7] McGoff

[8] Isaksen & Ekvall

[9] McGoff

[10] Baril, M. B. (2019, Sept 18). Five team attributes that are killing your creative tension. Forbes.

[11] McGoff

[12] Craig, W. (2018, Oct 16). 10 things transparency can do for your company. Forbes.

[13] McGoff

[14] Craig

[15] Label Insight. (2016). Driving long-term trust and loyalty through transparency. Label Insight Food Revolution Study.

[16] SproutSocial. (2019, May 2). #BrandsGetReal: Social media & the evolution of transparency. SproutSocial: From Risk to Responsibility: Social Media and the Evolution of Transparency.

[17] Label Insight.

[18] Isaksen & Ekvall

[19] Aaslaid,K. (2018, Nov 22). 50 examples of corporations that failed to innovate. Valuer.

[20] Pegoraro, R. (2019, Sept 29). Tech companies are quietly phasing out a major privacy safeguard. The Atlantic.