Momentum and Tension – Creating Positive Change

Published by Mark Zerbach on

Leadership Article Series



In business, a culture of stagnation is the same as a culture that moves backwards, assuming your competition is moving forward. Leaders want their organization to make changes to move them forward. However, significant, lasting change in an organization’s culture is not a brief process. A leader must be aware of the interplay of momentum and tension inherent throughout the change process. Tension will necessarily be created as you ask people to make changes. By understanding your group’s limits, you will know the appropriate amount of tension to allow. As these changes propel the group toward the end vision, momentum will begin to take hold and change will happen more quickly and easily. By following this approach, your group can reach the ultimate vision over time.

Key Terms

  • Vision: what and how a company wants to be; the ultimate goal of change
  • Forward: the direction that leads toward the desired change
  • Culture: the attitudes and behaviors collectively held and practiced in an organization
  • Tension: the stress and difficulty associated with moving out of the comfort zone
  • Momentum: the increased ease of change as people see the positive effects of change, or moving back into the comfort zone of the old culture


It’s very common to see the principles of tension and momentum being poorly applied in the workplace. Let’s begin with a common scenario. Someone comes in with the latest fad and drops it into everyone’s laps. The new idea gets some traction, some people get excited, but the daily grind takes over again. People don’t see the results they were expecting, they get frustrated, and management gives up on that idea. Management blames the employees, and the employees say the idea was faulty. Management may even push the employees harder, creating excessive tension. The idea either fizzles out or gets forgotten and the next fad replaces it. The employees learn that if they can just wait it out, any new idea can be shut down as soon as any momentum is lost.

Let’s address now how the interplay of tension and momentum should play out. To begin with, leaders must understand that some tension is necessary. No significant, positive change has ever taken place in complete comfort. People generally don’t like change, and we are trying to change them and the way they do business. However, too much tension is debilitating and demoralizing. Leaders must know how much tension is appropriate for their groups and realize that each individual in that group handles tension differently. The best way to monitor tension is to get to know your people and communicate with them on a regular basis. You will learn to read tension in those people and from there, decide how much tension is too much.

  • These are common sources of tension:
  • Too much work
  • Not understanding the process
  • Lack of communication
  • Lack of trust and respect
  • Poor leadership
  • Not understanding one’s role

The solution to high levels of tension is generally not to pull back on the effort to bring about change. Communication is often a great aid in relieving that tension. If people can see the overall picture and know what role they’re expected to play in it, they don’t have to stress about what they need to be doing each day as changes take place. If you keep painting a picture for them so they can see the overall plan, you decrease tension without letting up on the goal to change.

No one feels comfortable when they’re confused, so it’s important that you are readily available to take questions. Your people also need to know that you trust and respect them so they’ll be willing to ask questions. If you are expecting people to make serious changes, you should expect to provide serious support for them. You need to be actively involved in helping your people succeed.

Besides being responsible for the tension of change, a leader needs to guide the momentum that the tension creates. When we speak of momentum in this case, we mean positive momentum, or the tendency that people have to gradually invest more into something as they see it grow more successful. Having momentum means that people will be willing to take more risks and change their behaviors.

Let’s say you’ve done the first step and created appropriate tension by asking people to make a change that will ultimately lead them to your vision. You, as the leader, have to be actively engaged in keeping up that momentum. If you are not always working on ways to keep things moving forward, there is a risk of losing that momentum. So, after people take that first step in the right direction, how do you capitalize on that movement? How do you keep people moving in that direction and create momentum?

The most important way to encourage the momentum is to publicly celebrate wins. People need to see the short-term wins to convince them that something good is happening, that real change is actually taking place. Celebrating wins is great for morale, but in this case it’s not just about people feeling good. The celebration is a demonstration that things are actually changing; it shows the change as real, and no longer just an idea.

Even when people see the small successes, it’s normal for them to question whether the ultimate goal will be reached or if the desired change will last. If your people trust you as their leader, they will be willing to keep moving forward, believing that you know what you are doing and that you can help them connect the dots. People like things to be predictable and safe. People aren’t willing to risk much for someone they don’t know or don’t trust. If that’s the case, things will inevitably slip back to where they were. That’s why it’s so important for you to know your people.

There’s a technique I use to both celebrate successes and create relationships that I call “walking the trap line.” I randomly, but frequently, go to where people are working to check in on them, either to have a conversation or just to observe. Sometimes, I engage an individual and other times, a specific group. This is a way to connect people to the change we’re working toward and show them practical, relevant, and specific ways the change is taking place in their own area. This is a time you can mentor them and make small course corrections in a positive way.

As you become familiar with people and their jobs, you’ll be in a great position to anticipate their next needs. If you can have things ready for them before they need them, no one has to stop to figure things out. If people do have to stop, the momentum starts to slide in the wrong direction.

Another way to support momentum is to work on it from the beginning of the process. Decisions to make big changes should come from your team. If you get people involved from the outset, there will be a sense of ownership and greater buy-in to the new idea. This is the step where you can build relationships with key people who you can look to later on to gauge the levels of tension and momentum.

Keep in mind that real change in culture and behaviors is a long process and will not be without setbacks. Two steps forward and one step back is still progress. Focus more on the steps forward that have been made than on how much longer it will take.

Real-world example

Years ago, while I was in a leadership role, we decided to make a change in an aspect of my group’s culture. There was a group of drafters assigned to each of the lead engineers, and I had noticed several issues that resulted from that set-up. The vision was to have our engineers work as their own processing center, without the help of any outside drafters. Initially, nobody was happy with this idea because it had always been done the old way. I knew the process would be better and move our group forward, but I didn’t know if the new approach — or if I — would survive long enough for it to become a permanent change.

Knowing this change was going to introduce a lot of tension into the group, we decided to make the change in steps. We began by reducing the number of drafters by half. I kept the communication channels open and monitored the tension this change brought. The results were that the engineers continued to use the old system, turning over the same amount of work with half as many drafters. I saw the drafters being worked to the bone, the engineers being stressed about getting work done, and the new drafting process owners were wondering why they agreed to do this new assignment. The momentum was beginning to head the wrong direction and the tension was getting too high.

I considered either going back to the way things were or eliminating the drafters entirely from the new process. Going back would only have meant that we weren’t moving forward, and that I accepted the flaws I had seen in the old process. There was only one good answer, so I made the necessary preparations to move forward with the vision, and then pulled the remaining drafters out of our group.

Knowing the amount of tension I was going to be introducing, I made sure to monitor how it was affecting my people. I walked the floor every day, learning where the pressure points were, and then immediately getting the right people together to fix them. It took a good six months of encouraging the momentum as my people worked on changing and I worked on supporting them. In the end, this new system produced six times the throughput and resulted in significantly better quality. By the time we had reached the year mark, the change made our group the best in the company.