Creative Tension: What is it and Why Does it Matter?
By: Dr. Joel Small and Dr. Edwin McDonald
Many of us are familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance. Described initially by Leon Festinger in 1957, the theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that humans seek psychological consistency between their current reality and their perceived ideal reality.
When a gap exists between the two, psychological tension, or dissonance occurs. The more significance and value one attributes to the perceived ideal state, the greater the tension and the more one seeks to relieve it.
For example, a smoker may well understand that smoking is unhealthy yet they may desire a healthy lifestyle. However, they continue to smoke and experience psychological tension because a gap exists between their reality and their perceived ideal state. The more they value becoming a non-smoker, the greater the degree of tension.
There are several ways in which the gap between ideal and real can be closed. But it has been our observation that those who are unable to close the ideal/reality gap continue to suffer psychological tension until they finally either close the gap and become a nonsmoker, rationalize why smoking is acceptable, or submit to a self-limiting belief that they are just incapable of reaching the perceived ideal state. The consequences of adopting this self-limiting belief can be significant as one lives with constant frustration and loss of self-esteem. Interestingly, this same tension can be used in a more positive
and generative way.
Peter Senge (1990) introduced the concept of creative tension as a potential aid in facilitating creativity and change. According to Senge’s theory, we create positive tension when we clearly articulate our vision and our current reality, thus making the gap between the two apparent.
Cognitive dissonance and creative tension both share a common etiology; tension created by the perceived gap between the ideal and the real. What distinguishes creative tension from chronic cognitive dissonance is the way the tension is resolved.
We assert that creative tension is a powerful motivator that drives positive change within organizations.
It is also our belief that three essential elements must be present for creative tension to produce positive change:
Jim Clemmer, a renowned leadership expert, once stated that “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” Our vision is what allows us to see a preferred future state of being. Having a compelling vision of a preferred future is essential on a personal level, but how we communicate this vision to our team is even more critical.
Unless the team finds the vision compelling, they will lack the motivation necessary to make the vision a reality. Trust in the leader and believing in an overarching organizational purpose are important when seeking team motivation. Presenting a clear vision that the team finds both compelling and desirable
adds to their willingness to close the gap between their current reality and the preferred future.
There is perhaps no greater driving force for creative tension than one’s belief in their ability to attain the desired future state. Those that suffer from chronic cognitive dissonance do so because they either place little value in achieving their preferred future or even more commonly, they believe that they are incapable of closing the ideal/reality gap.
Creating a sense of self-efficacy requires a growth mindset on the part of the leader. Believing in the capabilities of each team member, creating a psychologically safe environment, and allowing them a degree of autonomy will empower our teams and build their confidence in their ability to accomplish any goal.
Given these three essential elements, creative tension becomes energizing.
Teams that experience creative tension see the task ahead as a way to an extremely desirable future. Once they embrace a clear vision that they find desirable and compelling, and they are confident in their capabilities, there is little that will stop them from achieving the desired result. For them, the task becomes their mission.
As a leader, you want to be sure you are offering the team these elements and helping them experience that creative tension. It will help build their confidence, abilities, and the business will see a difference because of it.
Dr. Joel Small and Dr. Edwin McDonald, the founders of Line of Sight Coaching, are dental practitioners, authors, speakers and Business Leadership Coaches who work with healthcare professionals to help them build more successful practices so they can live the balanced life they seek.