Managing organizational tensions: Part 1

Managing organizational tensions: Part 1

March 7, 2017

My social work graduate students and many of my nonprofit management peers frequently ask the same two related questions when referring to their current places of employment: Why do their organizations seem to be so continuously challenging to operate, and couldn’t they be better run if the leadership was better trained or had a more sophisticated set of skills?

My message to both groups, as different as they might be, is simple: All organizations are inevitably filled with tensions and complex dynamics, and the role of any leader is to manage, take advantage of, try to address and even revel in the realities of organizational behavior.

As long as the various forms of tension do not significantly upset the ongoing stability and success of the organization, then these factors should be seen as a positive dialectical description of a strong institution.

There are at least five types of tension that share one critical quality: their inevitability. The first two I label as inevitable because neither, in my experience nor in the experiences of many of my peers, could be permanently resolved. Not that leaders don’t try. So to make a virtue out of reality, many leaders have chosen instead to master the following types of tension to the greatest extent possible:

  • There is an inevitable tension between the administrative functions of an organization and the program purposes of an organization.

To be concrete, the most common example would be that the requirements of running a tight and effective fiscal operation frequently creates conflicts with program staff who are overwhelmed with rules and procedures that interfere with their daily work. Program people do not pursue their careers to get lost in the myopia of necessary bookkeeping and accurate fiscal reporting, but yet they must. Good fiscal people know that an organization cannot survive if it isn’t rigorous in its financial rules and protocols. Organizations rarely fail because their programs aren’t good; they often fail because their fiscal systems and standards are slack or deficient. A balance of interests and priorities must be established and maintained between these two sides of the organization, which is a daily leadership obligation.

In the best circumstances, good managers support administrative and program staff to better understand each other, to better accommodate their respective needs, to acknowledge their mutual interests. Newly developed financial software systems are making this division somewhat easier to manage, capable of providing real-time fiscal information to program staff and enabling staff across an organization to produce the reports they need and to be fully informed of large and small details. Any expectations, however, that quality technology and systems will fully resolve the underlying dynamic are fanciful.

I could just as easily apply this dynamic to other key administrative and program interactions. The human resources domain has increasingly strict rules and regulations imposed by all levels of government, but occasionally these rules may need to be overridden or flexibly applied by management so as not to hinder essential operations. The expanding regulations regarding staff hiring obligations, disciplinary or reward procedures, union rules where appropriate, management of health plans, and so on, require more staff than one would imagine to successfully implement, while simultaneously requiring more room for conflicting issues to arise between staff members.

Or we could examine the dynamic of never having enough space or quality facilities. Or responding to the pressures of information technology and required accountability, where the data obligations of running an organization sometimes make it more difficult to conduct programs. Again, to be clear, organizations exist to run programs. That is the mission of nonprofits. But both sides of the equation must be acknowledged and respected.

  • There should be tension among your management staff. People in management positions should not think alike, look the same or have similar personalities.

Too many organizations look for or encourage consensus among top leadership. Management and other staff should be chosen deliberately to represent distinct and diverse opinions, styles, personalities and approaches to work. There are implications for this viewpoint, but better to err on the side of eclecticism over uniformity.

Some likely results of this management style could be creating situations where decisions must be made with winners and losers, forcing higher level positions to upset or at least disappoint other positions when choices are made, or creating uncertainty as to which style is most valued within the organizational culture.

Overriding decisions made by others or negotiating compromise positions in reaching final decisions are not the easiest tasks for a leader, but that’s what we’re paid to do.


Please read Part 2 here

Michael Zisser is a former CEO for University Settlement and The Door.

Michael Zisser