Embracing Cultural Tension

2 min read

“We create tension to help us rise.” – Peter Senge

I have received this question a few times in the last two weeks so I thought I would share a few thoughts about this. 

The question is, how do I know if my organization is experiencing the cultural growth we envision? 


Most of the time, cultural growth can take quite some time. It's not something you traditionally see overnight and can take 6-12+ months before you may really see some of the ROI and new cultural behaviors throughout the entire organization. 

But there is one thing you will feel immediately once you start developing your culture - Tension.  

Cultural growth is much like experiencing tension. An uncomfortable and uneasy tension to be more clear. So, if you or others are experiencing these types of sensations, you're probably on the right track. 

Why is it this way? 

Well, mainly because culture development and growth requires you personally and collectively to step outside your comfort zone. Which is where this tension comes from. It requires you and your people to change behavior and habits, which is often extremely difficult and uncomfortable for anyone involved. I often say that cultural evolution is just as much a personal journey as it is an organizational one. 

“We have to reimagine evolution – and think not only about the change in our institutions but the changes in ourselves. —GRACE LEE BOGGS

So if you desire growth within your culture, you will have to ask yourself how far outside your comfort zone you are willing to go. Or how much tension can we, the people within the organization, collectively handle? 

Another way to visualize this tension is by thinking about a rubber band being stretched in two directions. 

One direction is representing where you are today. The other is the vision for the future.


We need to think about how much tension we are going to be comfortable with and how much we should apply. If we do not have a vision, we will not have anything pulling us to grow or develop. Too much of a vision and the tension becomes too strong.

And if you are like me, you have probably pulled too far on the rubber band at some point, and now you are left with this snapped piece of useless rubber. So think about what that would mean for your culture…

Having such a wide gap between aspiration and current reality indicates this high level of tension. I often have to notice this and ask myself, how much can this culture take? Can the group hold a larger amount of tension? Where are others in their level of comfort or stress? Can the system expand its boundaries?

One way to lower the tension is to lower the vision. If I can tell that a group seems edgy or unstable, we will probably want to help hold things together and touch an underlying order to minimize the tension.

Sometimes a group seems ripe for movement. So we work on building capacity and carving out a stronger vision for the group to gain momentum and courage.

That's where many of our services at Perennial come into play. We are here to help organizations improve cultural capacities in order to move closer to their vision.

In my opinion, the ideal strategy is to increase our capacity as we grow our vision. This way, each is growing at the same time and putting the culture into this evolutionary state. Which would be what we call a "Perennial" culture. 

So... how do I know if we are developing our culture? Look for tension and find ways to embrace it! 


Personal Practice

Step 1 - In your journal, identify your vision for your culture at the top of the page. Where would you like to be?

Step 2 - Then at the bottom of the page, add your current reality. Where are you with your capability today?

Step 3 - And then in between, describe the tension that you are holding between these two spaces. Can you feel it? How can you manage this tension in order to grow? 

BONUS Practice - Doing some cultural initiatives with your team/company? Ask others these same questions. Start to get a feel for where people are and how comfortable others will be with a level of tension. 

P-Tree (1)

Kelvy Bird - Presencing institute, www.kelvybird.com 

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