Monday, January 21, 2013

Team Tension: Causes and Management

By: Gary J. Salton, Ph.D.
Chief: Research and Development
Professional Communications, Inc.

Click Here to See Video
An earlier study that found that organizational structures had “built in” tension-reducing mechanisms  (see footnote #1—Organizational Level and Strategic Style).  This research applies those insights to teams.  A  tension producing thread was found to be rooted in the team format. Team tension has no “built in” control mechanism.  Control requires active intervention.

A YouTube video both condenses and expands on this research. It can be viewed by clicking the icon on the right. 

"Opt”® technology rests on the single assumption (i.e., a form of belief) that humans are information processors. Information processing has three necessary components: input, process and output. Without input there is nothing to process.  Without output nothing has been processed.  Without process (i.e., some form of conversion) nothing has changed.  This is traditionally expressed as:

Graphic 1

Graphic 1 shows the model as a linear sequence. This is accurate when dealing with well-understood, repetitive processes.  When dealing with unfamiliar issues the model becomes dynamic. Graphic 2 describes how human information processing typically works in team settings.

Graphic 2

Graphic 2 describes an iterative process. It begins by some intention. Intention is a reason to initiate an activity.  The person wants something. That “something” will be some type of desired “output.”

The desired output tells the “process” component what kind of “input” to try to acquire or accept.  Process then tells “output” what is possible given the input available. The model iteratively bounces back and forth constantly adjusting input and output. Ultimately it “homes in” on some kind of accommodation.

The input element is governed by a construct called “method.”  Method is a continuum that ranges from unpatterned on one side to structured on the other. Graphic 3 visually describes the construct. 

Graphic 3

The unpattterned method (far left) is opportunistic.  It accepts almost any input that looks relevant to the issue at hand.  The flood of potential inputs is managed by culling. Things that do not work are quickly discarded.  Adequacy rather than optimization is the standard for acceptance. This is a highly responsive strategy since little time is spent filtering input quality. 

Structured methods (far right) use some kind of prearranged approach to select input. This might be any kind of formula, plan or scheme. Inputs falling outside the accepted framework are discounted or ignored.  Structure is typically thought out in advance. This advanced planning generally produces dependable outcomes of consistent quality.
Discord can arise based on input choice. For example, one person might dismiss a variable that does not “fit” the prearranged framework. Another person using an unpatterned method may see that same variable as promising.  However, discord does not necessarily result in tension.  Less than perfect input may be tolerated if it is nonessential. Delays might be forgiven if they do not compromise later efforts.

Team tension is personal.  It arises when someone believes that their intended output is being compromised by the behavior of another team member. To see how personal tensions might arise we need to look at
the output element of the model.

Output is measured on a continuum with thought on one side and action on the other.  Graphic 4 visually describes this construct.

Graphic 4
Action (the right side) are those activities that have a direct effect upon the issue in question.  Thought (the left side) refers to preparatory activities. It is used to guide action. These two stances carry very different behavioral implications.  

Action is visible, risk is material and consequences are potentially wide ranging.  Thought is private, behaviorally silent and risk is confined. Consequences are limited since no action affecting others has been taken.

Different input exposures and output consequences combine to produce a variety of postures.  To see how input and output elections interact we have to combine them into a single measurable form.

Combined input and output elections are illustrated in Graphic 5.  The graphic shows four possible general conditions.

Graphic 5

Graphic 6 shows how each of the four basic information-processing dimensions are represented on the four axes of the basic “I Opt” grid. 
Graphic 6

Each axis of the “I Opt” grid relates to a particular combination of method (structured and unpatterned) and mode (action and thought). This is more clearly shown in Graphic 7 below.

Graphic 7
Each mixture of method and mode produces predictable outputs. For example the Reactive Stimulator style (top axis) is highly responsive (due to unpatterned input). It is also inclined to intervene directly on the issue in question (action output). The “I Opt” Snowflake in Graphic 8 (below) shows selected behaviors common to each of the “I Opt” styles (see footnote #2).

Graphic 8

People can adopt a posture by degrees.  “I Opt” measures the commitment to each style on a ratio scale (i.e., like a ruler where any person can be accurately compared to any other).  The measurement is displayed using an “I Opt” profile as shown in Graphic 9.
Graphic 9

Tension is a heightened form of sensitivity. Method and mode elections produce expectations. People plan their own response based on these expectations. Graphic 10 shows the profiles of two people. The white area is where the two profiles share common perspectives. Areas outside of this common zone are potential sources of failed expectations. Thus these areas of divergence (i.e., red and blue) are personally threatening. This threat is a source of tension.

Graphic 10

For example Person 1 (red) is more likely to see a situation as warranting a rapid reponse. The other person (blue) might see that same situation as requiring thought and study. Some of these disagreements can be resolved by simple logic. However, many issues are fuzzy. This lack of clarity limits the usefulness of logic.

Team conditions are often characterized by multivalued logic (i.e., “Fuzzy” logic). Things have only a proportional degree of necessity or completeness.  The offended person can assign one value to a condition. The person doing the offending can assign another. Neither person can completely demonstrate the correctness of their position. This is the point that things begin to breakdown. 

Accusations and insistence replace logic.  When these approaches fail the only “reason” left for the condition is the person(s) causing it. The “reason” becomes a personal deficiency or malfunction. Attributions become the order of the day.

An attribution is a verdict or a pronouncement. It assigns a “cause” (i.e., a reason) for the behavior. Attributions tend to be final. Once a verdict is rendered there is little need to search for added evidence or greater understanding.  

Attribution potential lies in the very nature of information processing. Positions on each end of the method and mode band are mutually exclusive. Selecting one forecloses the options on the other end. This makes the resulting attributions reasonably predictable.

The direction and degree of potential discord is defined by the profile overlap. Areas where the profiles do not overlap give the nature of the likely attribution(s). The quite contemplation of the HA gives no evidence of interest. The responsiveness of the RS suggests imprudence. These and other likely attributions follow directly from the way a person must behave in order to execute their selected strategy.

The video outlines the logic for each style attribution in more detail.  For purposes of brevity these are summarized in Table 1 below.

Table 1

Teams are used where a diversity of perspectives is needed.  This means that the profiles of team members will always diverge.  The interactions of people holding these divergent profiles will thus always contain the seeds of team tension.

Whether or not interpersonal tension will encompass a team is indeterminate. It depends on the nature of team interconnections.  The more a particular source of tension directly effects others the more likely it will spread through the team. The connection acts as a vector through which tension can travel. A person whose interests are affected by a divergence is most likely to experience and to pass on tension.

Team composition also effects how tension might spread. High proportions of thought-based strategies (HA and RI styles) can dampen tension effects. These styles can offer options and alternatives. These can diminish or redirect internal conflicts. On the other hand, action based strategies tend to exaggerate the effects. An action response is definitive and tends to solidify positions. 

There is no general formula describing the extent and degree that interpersonal tension will spread in a team. However, tension almost always has a negative effect. Investments to minimize potential tension and/or its consequences will almost always yield a positive return.

The seeds of destructive tension are contained in each and every team that has been or will ever be created. Team tension will not always frustrate the goal being pursued. But it will always increase the cost. Thus it is always wise to consider ways to prevent or mitigate its effects.  These methods can include:

There are a host of well-understood techniques designed to control event based activities. These are things that have a beginning and end point versus on-going operations. Milestones are a common element of all of these methods. 

Milestones define the expected events or conditions. They are located at points in time. This creates common understanding and expectations. Responsibility for milestones provides a basis to resolve any issues that may arise. The opportunity for team tension is thus minimized.

Project management methods require the ability to define in detail the steps in the process.  It is of limited value for activities with less than specific goals or for which the steps involved are not fully known.  Milestones can also be costly. Time and resources are needed to establish and maintain them.  However, project management methods will be helpful for situations where they can be applied.

A less expensive method of controlling tension is to get a broad agreement on the nature (not content) of the goal.  For example, a goal involving a large investment may demand high certainty.  Agreeing that a careful approach is appropriate puts everyone in the same mindset (e.g., HA and/or LP).

Graphic 11

The orientation strategy has two appealing aspects.  First, it creates a common direction for all team members. Graphic 10 shows that even a highly committed idea-oriented RI will have at least some capabilities in the disciplined LP and HA styles. These capacities, however modest, can be enlisted to contribute to the group effort. 

Secondly, the common understanding reduces the potential for conflict. It effectively prioritizes the criteria upon which decisions will be made. A potential source of tension has been disarmed.

An even more general approach is training. The destructive aspects of tension come into play with emotions. Emotions are biochemical bodily responses. The interpretations of these bodily responses are called “feelings.” Feelings are the meanings that are assigned to the biochemistry being experienced.  Feelings are what guide action. Training can help people assign the correct meaning to their biochemical experience. Interactions can thus be guided into a more productive (or at least a less destructive) direction.

Emotional Intelligence (EI) programs can help. Their focus is psychological and center on self-understanding.  However, controlling team tension requires a focus on the group objective rather than individual well being. Any positive effect of EI on a group is indirect at best.

Teams are a social entity. Attempting to mediate the emotions person causes rather than those they experience more directly addresses the social core of teams.  Interested readers can jump-start a training program with a fully narrated 66-slide PowerPoint program. It is free and can be obtained simply by requesting it (see footnote #3).  The program can be used “out of the box” or serve as a launch point for creating your own presentation. 

The Emotional Impact Management Report is specific to the individual but social in character. It helps a person manage the emotions they cause rather than what they experience. It is versatile and can be used as coaching support, a standalone pass-out or as a component of a training program.  Its low cost makes it a feasible option for any team (see footnote #4).

Graphic 12

General ways of minimizing team tension are helpful.  But specific teams composed of particular people benefit most from targeted methods. Targeted methods can home in on the actual issues the team is likely to encounter.

The first step is measuring information-processing postures. Graphic 10 (above) showed how probable divergences can be calculated. This identifies likely exposures.  The next step is to devise tools to offset the vulnerabilities. Appendix 1 offers samples of the kinds of tools that might be applied. Others can be devised to meet any particular situation.

Graphic 13

Another option is to run an “I Opt” TeamAnalysis™ (see Graphic 13). This inexpensive report can be more cost effective than spending the hours or even days needed to design custom tools. It also has the advantage of unbiased thorough assessment (e.g., it considers coalitions, outlier effects, etc.).   The advice offered also extends beyond the basic roles, rules and process (see footnote #5 for more information).

This research isolated a universal source of tension.  It traced how information-processing elections always carry the seeds of potential discord.  It proceeded to show how these elections can be translated into measurable “I Opt” profiles. These profiles can then be used to assess the potential for tension even before a team is actually formed. 

The direction and intensity of tension can be predicted from the difference in the “I Opt” profiles of people connected by some kind of team interdependency.  Because the nature of tension can be predicted, it can be controlled.

The research concludes by offering strategies for managing tension.  These vary in cost and required effort.  Selecting and competently applying the one best suited to particular circumstances will produce positive gains in almost any and every situation.


Mutual Respect: The more style diversity on a team, the more valuable is this option. Understanding the “I Opt” posture of others is usually enough to build in a level of tolerance. The knowledge forewarns of likely responses. With this understanding expectations can be better aligned.

Chunking: Groups characterized by structured styles might consider managing the size of the “chunks.” Projects and processes are typically broken down into discrete pieces. Smaller “chunks” increase specificity and limit the horizon over which performance is to occur.  Alignment becomes simpler and disjoints are less probable.

Pairing: Groups with style “outliers” can reduce their exposure to potential misalignments. People with complementary (not necessarily compatible) styles can be paired so that one party's preferences offset the other (e.g., HA and RS). This strategy confines tension while giving the people involved a common destiny. This can increase the motivation for arriving at an accommodation.

Meetings: Structured styles benefit from the fact that meetings require preparation (at minimum mental). Preparation increases awareness of the responsibilities undertaken.  Increased awareness improves the odds that timing expectations will be met. 

The unpatterned styles can also benefit. These highly responsive strategies tend to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Meetings can be used to alert group members to actions taken.  The opportunity for corrective action is thus enhanced. Generally, the more important the matter being addressed, the more frequent should be the coordination meetings.

Shifting: Structured styles can usually find very good reasons why a particular objective is being delayed. An inability to meet group expectations might be addressed by a policy of transferring responsibility rather than attempting to force completion. The potential embarrassment of being relieved of responsibility is often enough to motivate completion. 

Goodies: Meeting attendance can be an issue. If attendance cannot be compelled the attendees might be seduced. Inducements such as a good lunch, packets of business related materials, early access to important information might be sufficient to encourage attendance. An implied quid-pro-quo may also exert a minor but positive influence. People may feel a twinge of guilt about getting goodies while failing to deliver promised results.

Hurdles: Unpatterned strategies are likely to be timely but may deliver results of uneven quality. Specifying a quality standard might be used to offset quality variation. If quality cannot be prespecified some kind of preliminary review might be considered. The thrust of this option is to try to make sure that the product is “ready for prime time” before being considered by the group.

Deadlines: Structured styles tend to benefit from explicit deadlines that have consequence. Even things like the public exposure of failed commitments might suffice. The consequence can be anything that motivates completion.  People employing structured styles can be very adept at creating “reasons” for missed deadlines. 

Squeezing: Structured styles will generally take all of the time available before responding. Setting a target well before the “real” timing deadline can give the group the opportunity to adjust or contribute to the final result before finalization. 

Duration: Different styles are most productive in meetings of different duration. Structured styles can use long meeting times to fit things together—concepts for the HA and processes for the LP.  Unpatterned styles are using a more fluid strategy. For them short duration meetings are most productive. When setting duration it might be well to keep in mind that it may be possible to set interactions where only some—not all—of the people on a team meet on particular subjects.

The above are examples rather than an exhaustive list.  Other equally valid and effective strategies can be devised.  Generally, the more committed a person or group is to one particular strategic style, the more likely is a vulnerability to surface and the more valuable will be a tool to offset it.

(1) Organizational Rank and Strategic Style.  Google research blog published October 22, 2012 and available at .  A companion YouTube video both abbreviates and expands on the research and was published October 17, 2012 and is available at

(2) The “I Opt” Snowflakes are templates that identify characteristics associated with different strategic styles or patterns. They are designed so that individual or group "I Opt" profiles can be overlaid on them for self-discovery uses.  Snowflakes can be constructed to address a variety of areas (e.g., general behavior, corporate culture, learning, communication and emotional responses). Free pdf copies current snowflakes can be downloaded from

(3) A brief 6-minute video “I Opt” Emotion Training Program“can be viewed in the Coffee Break Videos section of or directly on YouTube at:  You can obtain a free electronic copy of the entire program by contacting our offices by phone, email or snail mail using the contact information on

(4) The contents of the Emotional Impact Management report can be reviewed on the website at

 (5) “I Opt” TeamAnalysis™ Orientation (2008). A 10 minute video available on the iopt website at or directly on YouTube at