The Power of Tension in Your Nonprofit Work

May 13, 2013

When you really think about it, your nonprofit is as innovative, as productive, and as successful as the people who lead it and the people who carry out the program and administrative sides of your work.

Tensions between you and others on your team are inevitable. Different perspectives. Different backgrounds. Different approaches to solving problems. Different stresses outside of work that color your daily experiences.

The tensions around you—and between others—can either motivate or destroy your effectiveness in your role at your organization.

Sometimes you feel powerless to impact change at your organization because the forces around you will not allow you the space to speak or to be heard. Other times, the tensions may create a cascading scenario of conflict that does little to address the root issues.

How can you harvest these tensions to create a better organizational culture?

  • Use tension as a connector. We thrive on connections. Find ways to connect with the people who have points of view very different from your own. When you do this, you may not resolve philosophical differences, but you can build bridges on a personal level with your associates. This will help you appreciate each other even when you do not agree.

  • Realize that different perspectives make your organization stronger. As annoying and time-consuming as they can be, different perspectives on your staff and board add value to your organization. Our community is diverse and addressing the issues in our community requires diversity in thought. If you are a leader at your nonprofit, think about the culture you have established. Is it one that welcomes various points of view? Or makes people feel as if they cannot speak up?

  • Use tension to build your own leadership abilities. When you view tensions in your work as a personal challenge, you can only build your strengths as a leader. Consider a confidentiality buddy who can bring a balanced view of situations to help you understand tensions within the context of the larger picture. Sometimes viewing the world outside of your own lens is necessary. Then take an active role in recognizing and working through tensions instead of waiting for someone else to do it.

  • Understand the motivators. Are the tensions in your nonprofit work based on different approaches to the work itself, or based on personal insecurities and ego? Figuring out your role in making people feel comfortable can do a lot to harvest the positive aspects of tension. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Help bring out the best in people. It will bring out the best in yourself!

Within our work, we find many challenges—some driven by the complexity of the issues we are addressing, and some driven by people.

There are silver linings in the ways we choose to harvest tensions. What has worked well for you and your organization? I bet you have lots of ideas. Post a comment and share them.

-Susie Bowie
Community Foundation of Sarasota County

Thanks to the Southeastern Council on Foundation’s Hull Fellows retreat for helping me think through some of these opportunities through my own lens and the lens of others.



One Response to “The Power of Tension in Your Nonprofit Work”

  1. Maryann Says:

    I suggest “breaking bread” with those you have tension with that you work with. Sharing lunch can really bring you to eachother page.

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