Managing organizational tensions: Part 2

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Please read Part 1 of this series in which Michael Zisser explores the role that organizational tension plays within nonprofits. 


There is no such thing as an organization without tensions, and no such thing as an organization that can avoid the various dynamics of management complexity.

That is one of the reasons why new leaders, or fresh insights and perspectives, make life – and organizations – more interesting. That’s why continuously trying to fix the world never quite produces the world we would like to have.

Here are some additional tips on handling the inevitable tensions and complex dynamics leaders must manage – and perhaps even revel in:

  • Triaging competing yet equally important choices is an inevitability for leadership and therefore a source of potential tension.

Almost any example of triage implies that something important to the organization, favored by one constituency or another, will not be pursued and therefore may result in negative consequences.

Triage is not simply a utilitarian decision-making strategy. The decision to make a sacrifice – to not continue a program, to not improve space, to lay off people who are no longer affordable, to compromise on a legal matter for the sake of expediency – results in an organization unhappy about something.

In a well-run organization, triage should be considered an acceptable strategic move. Ignoring the need for triage means, essentially, that you are abrogating your responsibilities as a leader and hoping that a satisfactory decision will be made by accident or divine intervention. Triage is oftentimes synonymous with accepting loss, or even failure, but also can be a positive or necessary step.

  • The tension between goal setting and opportunism is an implicit dynamic in organizations.

Most management literature says organizations and managers need to set explicit goals, against which actions or accomplishments can be judged. This issue could be addressed by acknowledging two possibly contradictory positions:

Everyone should set goals that they can and should accomplish; and also set goals that they cannot possibly accomplish, but should strive to reach.

Individuals and organizations should challenge their strengths and capabilities, which might not even be visible or understood when people are asked to define their annual goals. This is what opportunism and ambition are all about. Generally speaking, people and organizations tend to define their goals in a way that success will be mostly or entirely achieved. No one wants to set themselves up for a bad review or failure. There is no problem with having attainable goals and people do need to feel successful. But, real advancement happens when the boundaries are stretched, risks are taken, organizations and people go beyond what is expected of them or even considered to be achievable and failure is a distinct possibility – as long as it does not threaten the survival of part or all of an organization.

This understanding of goal definition leads to a different result of how personal or organizational success is measured and rewarded. A strong organization, respectful of accomplishment and success, will figure out how to acknowledge jobs well done and reward them accordingly, while still suggesting that there are greater heights to achieve and greater things to be done if the fear of pursuit is diminished.

  • There are goals that can and should be defined as attainable within the limits of human services providers, but our sector has become too reliant on outcomes-driven programs that may or may not adequately address needs.

Believing outcomes have limited utility is a heretical position to take, but on a daily basis, unfortunately, this issue creates more tension than any of my other points. On many occasions, programs may even be designed and sufficiently funded to achieve their required outcomes. Though, there are fewer examples than we would expect where a near-perfect match exists between available resources and program intent.

It would be a major step if programs funded by public or private sources had sufficient resources to achieve their defined objectives. A corollary goal would be nonprofits having more say upfront in the development of outcomes against which they will be measured.

Many of the so-called nonprofit failures come less from deliberate mismanagement than from organizations trying to fulfill unattainable goals that then foster mismanagement. The defense of just doing good or necessary work no longer cuts it. Just providing a service based on years of affirmative experience and judgment no longer cuts it. Measuring the unknown negative consequences of not doing something or not providing a service has always been a challenging social science concept.

I am not advocating for the elimination or diminution of outcome measures and accountability, but I do suggest resetting the scales that may have tipped too far in the wrong direction.


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

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