Managing Tensions as a New Manager

Managing Tensions as a New Manager

Have you ever heard a senior leader say this before: “I can’t believe how much that person is struggling since I put them in a leadership role, they seemed to have management-material written all over them.” Or have you ever heard a person who is relatively new to management say something like this: “I waited for my whole career for a leadership opportunity like this, but now that I’m managing people, I’m starting to question if I have what it takes.”

All too often the careers of new managers fall apart, to the surprise of themselves and to those who put them into their role. They seem full of leadership potential, yet fail to deliver on this potential once given the opportunity to lead. There are a lot of reasons that this can happen, but in my twenty years of experience working with organizations that range in size and scope from high-tech start-ups to divisions of the United Nations, the most universal and predictable reason that the careers of new managers fail to launch is due to three unavoidable tensions.

Control vs. Empowerment

Being a Boss vs. Being a Friend

Focusing on My Part of the Organization vs. Focusing on the Whole Organization

Control vs. Empowerment

Managers are responsible! This means that they need to hold on to some sort of control over the work and behaviours of their team. They need to ensure that things are done properly and in a way that is effective and efficient. At the same time, managers need to empower their team members so that they have the freedom to develop into their full potential. This means giving them space to thrive, and at times, to make mistakes. The problem is that the values of control and empowerment are often in unhealthy tension with one another.

If a manager over-focuses on control to the neglect of empowerment, team-members feel micro-managed and believe their passion and potential is being diminished. Beyond this, overdone control kills productivity because the manager must be connected to everything that happens.

At the same time, if a manager over-focuses on empowerment to the neglect of control, they set team members up for failure because they don’t provide them with the development and support they need to succeed. These managers also live in a state of perpetual anxiety because they never truly trust in the abilities of their team.

Being a Boss vs. Being a Friend

Once a manager is given a team to lead they need to assume the responsibilities of being a boss. This can mean holding people accountable, having uncomfortable conversations, and ensuring there are consistency and fairness throughout the team. At the same time, the best bosses are also seen as a friend to those they lead. This doesn’t mean they have to go for drinks after work and be “friends” on social media, but it does mean that they truly know and care for each team member. They believe the best in each person and everyone on their teams knows this is the case. Unfortunately, being both a boss and a friend can be incredibly challenging and result in a lot of tension.

Over-focusing on being a boss to the neglect of being a friend results in team members not feeling cared for and seen simply as a tool being used to get things done. This often leads to high turnover, an unpleasant team culture, and people living up only to the minimum expectation of their job description.

Over-focusing on being a friend to the neglect of being a boss is just as dangerous. Crucial but uncomfortable conversation around performance is often avoided in order to preserve the friendship. Decision making is often skewed because the leader is thinking too much about “how will this impact my team relationships” instead of “what’s the best option for the organization.

Focusing on My Part of the Organization vs. Focusing on the Whole Organization

One of the biggest challenges a new manager faces is that they are now responsible for their part of the organization. This means they need to be incredibly focused on the productivity of their division and the culture of their team. At the same time, they need to ensure their part is connected to, and working in alignment with, the whole organization (i.e. all the other parts). This means that they need to be communicating and collaborating with other teams, departments, and divisions. It also means that they need to make decisions that don’t only benefit themselves, their bottom line, and their team members, but that benefit everyone in the organization. Similar to the tensions above, focusing on their part while at the same time focusing on the whole is often easier said than done.

When managers over-focus on their part of the organization to the neglect of the whole they start to create divisions within the company, where regardless of how well their part is doing, they are not aligned with what’s going on in the rest of the company. When this happens, teams become divided from other teams, and the company develops what is often referred to as a silo mentality, where the benefits of collaboration, communication, and innovation are stifled.

When managers over-focus on the whole organization to the neglect of their part, their team often feels neglected and believes that their unique needs are not being understood and fought for. This can also lead to unnecessary bureaucracy and red-tape because managers require too many meetings, consultations and approvals before they give their team the freedom they need to get things done in an effective way.


The bad news is that these three tensions – Control vs. Empowerment, Being a Boss vs. Being a Friend, and Part vs. Whole – are unsolvable and unavoidable. Similar to the tension found in breathing between inhaling and exhaling, it is just a part of life. And believing that you can choose one side of any of the three tensions (i.e. choosing to just be a boss, or to only focus on empowerment, or to simply focus on your team) is as futile as waking up in the morning and deciding that today you’re just going to inhale. It won’t work!

The bad news is that these three tensions are unsolvable and unavoidable. The good news is that these tensions can be managed and even leveraged. There are three easy steps that every new manager can take to ensure these tensions are working for them, and not against them.


In my book, The Power of Healthy Tension, I say that “seeing is relieving.” When a new manager can identify and name the key tensions that they are already feeling and potentially wrestling with, they experience a huge amount of relief. It becomes clear that they are not dealing with this tension because they are doing something wrong, or they don’t have the skills to succeed. Instead, the opposite is true. These are foundational tensions to effective leadership, and the more they can get used to them, and even comfortable with them, the more they will have the wisdom and resilience they need to thrive.


New managers should constantly be checking in with the health of these tensions. How close do they resemble the metaphor of breathing, where the tension between inhaling and exhaling happens in a healthy and almost effortless way? This assessing can be done through on-going personal reflection, and by deliberate conversations with both supervisor and direct reports.


Leveraging something means to take advantage of it. The energy that comes from these three tensions is something that new managers can tap into in a powerful way. This comes from seeking out conversations with team members and colleagues who have a different point of view than your own; fostering a team culture that embraces tension and diverse opinions instead of avoiding them; and decision making based on the whole truth as opposed to just part of the truth that’s aligned with my bias or point of view.


Unfortunately, the careers of high-potential emerging leaders often fail to launch because they are not able to recognize and manage three unavoidable tensions. This results in new managers giving up and giving in, and companies failing to have the leadership they need to scale and win. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In his groundbreaking book, Good to Great, Jim Collins found that leaders who were truly great, and organizations who out-performed their competition decade after decade, did not accept “The Tyranny of the OR but instead embraced The Genius of the AND.” This means that instead of avoiding these key leadership tensions, great managers need to embrace the power of Control AND Empowerment, Being a Boss AND Being a Friend, and Focusing on My Part AND Focusing on the Whole. Leaders who achieve healthy tension between these conflicting values outperform those who don’t and possess a competitive advantage that is rare and powerful.

Tim Arnold
President, Leaders for Leaders


Many leaders have a great vision but fail to live it out.  They feel stuck because of conflicting values and chronic issues.  Leaders for Leaders offers workshops and keynotes that help leaders get unstuck so they can unite their team, spark change, and live their values.  We can help get you unstuck! Click here to fill out a simple needs assessment. 

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