Tension and Progress

Posted on November 4, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized |

One of the key concepts coming out of my Organization and Administration course has been the fact that tension is necessary in order for progress to be made. Examples of this include the racial tensions that were necessary in order for the social movements of the 60s to take place, the tensions of a globalized, multi-cultural workforce that have lead to increased attention in the areas of intercultural communication and conflict resolution and the tensions caused by the latest financial crisis creating a need for student affairs departments to be more effective, efficient and accountable. This viewpoint lends itself to another reoccurring concept: leaders are people who can be comfortable with tension and can make quality decision in the face of tension.

In many respects, I agree with this statement and view a leader’s ability to deal with conflict, change and tension as signs of their success. However, I’m left with a lot of concerns for how someone who is new to student affairs, like myself, is going to deal with tension in positive ways. The reason for my concern is that I think a person’s comfort with tension has a lot to do with how much progress a person has seen towards decreasing this tension over time. My case in point will be the recent revitalized effort to organize a “Black-Out” for an upcoming OSU football game. As someone who has only been on campus one year and has only seen the hurt, sadness, and tension that came with last year’s event, I have very little context with which to view this year’s event. I view it as an unfortunate, unthoughtful choice by students who have learned very little from the negative occurrences of a year before. I also don’t have a broad viewpoint of the gains that have been made among racial and ethnic groups on OSU’s campus. I don’t know how much better or worse conditions are for under-represented groups and therefore cannot see how the tension brought up my multiple years of an event like the “Black-Out” might lead to headway on diversity issues over time. While I want to believe that this type of tension could ultimately be a driving force in positive social change I haven’t been a part of an organization long enough to see this first hand and therefore I remain skeptical.

I have to believe that this skepticism is warrented; that some tension is in fact bad for an organization and does not bring about progress. That tension for tension’s sake is not the course being suggested. Tension is good if its causes can be discussed openly and honestly. If all those feeling the tension are equal partners in reducing its negative effects and using it as motivation towards achieving greater things, then tension is worthwhile. When tension prevents people from communicating with one another, when it divides people into factions, when it creates fear of change, then a leader must be comfortable addressing the tension, but never willing to accept that the tension can persist in the same form or quantity.


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One Response to “Tension and Progress”

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Thanks for your thoughts. As a mediator I see tension (conflict) as a natural part of life. I think that when we recognize conflict and are willing to trace from where it is coming, we have an opportunity to learn. What sometimes happens is that people focus on the conflict. I think that as a student affairs professional, our role is to help people see from where the conflict is originating. For instance, with the “black out” some see the blackface and afro wigs and are either personally offended, worry about what people think of OSU ( impact on the greater community) or wonder why people want to “ruin their fun”. Again, the point is to educate them on why the tension is there and to help them explore other perspectives. In the situation noted above, that may be to acknowledge that some speak out of ignorance (not all are trying to be mean) or that there is a a history with blackface that gives legitimacy to the concern (people aren’t trying to “ruin the fun”).

Sometimes my role is simply to not add to the conflict, but to be an active part of the resolution. This is where mediation comes in handy. Other times my role is to present conflict. This is when I am wearing my student conduct “hat” (e.g “your behavior last weekend was in conflict to our community standards”). The outcome is hopefully the same; students leave with a greater understanding of themselves and the community in which they live. However, it all started with a recognition of conflict. I try to see conflict as a catalyst.

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