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Team cohesion has long been touted as the most important indicator of success, but senior leaders need to focus on managing tensions first, finds a new study.

RHR International's recent study surveyed leadership teams about organizational performance, team structure and dynamic, and their performance compared to industry peers across a span of six years.

Respondents included more than 700 senior executives across a variety of industries, including financial services, energy, technology, and health care, writes RHR's Orla Leonard, Nathan Wiita, and Christopher Milane for Harvard Business Review.

Overall, the survey results show a team's ability to manage tensions is most predictive of high performance, write the authors.

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The authors identify the three key tensions that often emerge for senior leaders:

1: Risks vs. Results

Executive teams often operate at a crossroads between delivering short-term results and pursuing risks with a long-term payoff, write Leonard, Wiita, and Milane.

However, the top 25% of teams cultivated an environment where risk and day-to-day delivery coexisted, explain the authors. To lead a successful team, leaders must establish a culture embracing both results and risks, says Volker Schulte, group director at Aggreko.

2: External vs. Internal

According to the study, high-performing teams always focus on the external environment to remain competitive, even during times of internal transformation. To avoid becoming too focused on the external and losing sight of what's happening internally, establish mechanisms that allow employees to expose barriers to doing their work and flag them for senior leadership, recommends Thomson Reuters President David Craig.

3: Leading vs. Empowering Innovation

Innovation is a well-known key to success, note the authors. High-performing teams can direct innovation at the executive level while empowering frontline staff to do the same, write Leonard, Wiita, and Milane.

Successful leaders recognize that the employees working closest to customers often offer the best insights, they note. According to Schulte, leaders have a responsibility to create a culture where all employees feel heard.  

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Leaders can navigate tension by adopting these three strategies:

1: Make tension part of the process

Tension is not always an indicator that something's wrong, explain the authors. To acknowledge tension as an important and necessary part of the business process, establish an open dialogue for individuals to express their concerns and ideas, recommend the authors.

2: Focus on the customer

Keeping the customer at the forefront will help teams navigate any tension that may arise, write Leonard, Wiita, and Milane.

3: Make innovation a priority (at all levels)

Don't let innovation take a backset to day-to-day business, warn the authors. Being able to adapt to an ever-changing industry is more important than ever, so create frameworks that jumpstart bottom-up innovation, they explain.

While managing tension is critical to leading a successful team, the importance of establishing cohesion should not be forgotten, warn Leonard, Wiita, and Milane.

Before any team can successfully navigate tension, they need to be cohesive with strong levels of trust, transparency, and a team-first mentality, the authors write (Leonard et al., Harvard Business Review, 9/21).

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