Different Roles, Different Goals – Healthy Tension at Work

Amy Lyman


RopeOne of the most valuable classes I took as an undergraduate college student was a debate class.

The professor took the time to uncover beliefs that we felt strongly about.  He then surprised us by having us debate the opposite position.  We were forced to develop and deliver a compelling argument that went exactly counter to what we felt strongly about.

In my case, at the time, I was opposed to using animals in cosmetic testing labs but there I was delivering a passionate speech as to why testing cosmetics on animals was vitally important.  This act of understanding and articulating another’s viewpoint can be really useful in the workplace where different roles and departments are structured to have different success criteria.

Although all members of an organization ought to have the same overarching goal of company success, the day to day objectives of different functions can be markedly different.  What motivates and drives the sales team is not what motivates and drives the service quality team.   A predictable level of tension exists, for instance, between Sales and Service and between Business Development and Risk Management regardless of the people who staff the groups.  This tension is actually healthy for the organization because you want there to be different perspectives keeping an eye on, and advocating for, different aspects of the business.

My goal here is to emphasize the benefits of this tension, and reduce the temptation to take it too far or too personally.

Have you ever seen a colleague exasperated that the sales team is overpromising a particular service? Have you ever felt frustrated because a service team member insists that a client matter be handled in a very particular way?  Has a fellow employee been infuriated because your response to a new business idea has been hesitant and cautionary?  These occurrences are so baked into the process as to be practically pre-scripted.

Our grievances with Susan from Finance, or Tom from Manufacturing, or Nate from the Legal Department, or Barbara from Human Resources, are usually not in fact with them personally if you consider how each individual has been set up given their assigned roles.  This perspective can go a long way in alleviating acute inter-personal tension and conflict because it provides a broader view into the underpinnings of what motivates people.

I am even willing to bet, if everyone within an organization were to magically rotate roles, people would find themselves arguing for positions they had previously railed against.

Just like when I was forced to take a stand for cosmetic testing on animals.

So instead of feeling disgusted with a fellow employee and lashing out at them, or bad mouthing them to another co-worker, pause to consider the following questions:

  • What are their objectives?
  • What does their boss expect of them?
  • Why do they have their particular viewpoint?
  • What would my opinion, or approach be if I were in that person’s job?

This valuable exercise of considering another’s viewpoint, one I initially learned in a college level debate class, can give you a very different sense, and even an appreciation of, the tension between departments and roles within your organization.

Without this tension, your organization might not actually be as successful.

Amy Lyman, M.A. is a Consultant at Comprehensive EAP.  She has a combination of business and counseling experience and has been interested in the role of mental health in the workplace since the start of her career.  She has a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology from Lesley University.