Suspension bridge.

For Life and Leadership: 3 Ways to Manage Tension More Effectively

Bridges are amazing structures. They provide more efficient passage from one point to another over formidable gaps by managing two forces: tension and compression. Too much tension, and the bridge snaps. Too much compression, and the bridge buckles. Engineers have devised various ways of managing these forces over the millenia. No engineer, however, has ever devised a way to eliminate these forces altogether. To span the gap from “here” to “there,” tension and compression must be successfully managed 24/7.

Life and leadership present us often with the need to move from “here” to “there,” over gaps big and small. We become both bridge-builder and bridge-tender: organizing and leading the team, pulling together opposing viewpoints, negotiating win-win deals, and managing the many forces inherent in the endeavor to insure success.

Sometimes, tension can build to unsustainable levels. Several years ago, at a major personal and professional fork in the road, I found myself spread-eagle on the living room floor early in the morning before my family was up–feeling like I might snap from the tension. At other times, we experience tension in less dire, everyday circumstances. Recently, I was pulled between taking steps to reconcile a relationship or leaving loose ends dangling. Yesterday, I was caught between time with my family and time to myself. Maybe you can relate? Day in and day out, tension is our constant companion.

In this post, we’re going to focus specifically on ways to manage tension more effectively. If tension in life and leadership isn’t going away, then how do we expand our capacity to embrace and use it? Here are 3 ways to consider:

  1. First, learn to distinguish between a “problem to solve” and a “tension to manage.” I first heard Andy Stanley make this distinction. Sometimes tension exists or persists unnecessarily because it’s actually being caused by a problem that can be solved. Solve the problem, resolve the tension. For example, production inefficiencies are eating into profit. As a leader in the organization, you are working hard to manage the tension that exists between the company and its shareholders due to declining profits. This is a problem that can be solved, however, by improving production efficiency through better processes, systems, etc. By solving the problem, the associated tension is also relieved. Attempting to manage the tension long-term instead of solving the efficiency problem would be a fool’s errand with steadily diminishing returns. Sometimes, however, tension exists because it is good and necessary–even if it is also still challenging. For example, a common tension in organizations is that between “sales” and “support” or “field” and “office.” The sales / field folks feel like the support / office folks require too much detailed documentation, pinch pennies too tightly, don’t appreciate what life is like for them on the front lines, and shoot down innovative ideas out-of-hand. By contrast, the support / office folks feel like the sales / field folks are blind to cost, promise the moon, and make it up as they go–often without communicating changes in a timely manner, if at all. Does this sound familiar? However, organizations absolutely need sales / field people who innovate, work hard to please the customer, and respond to rapidly shifting marketplace demands with agility. Organizations also absolutely need support / office people who count the beans accurately, monitor and manage systems and processes vigilantly, and maintain a core of operational stability. If I, as a leader in the organization, decided to treat this as a problem to solve, and mandated that the sales / field folks must comply with all support / office directives to the letter (admittedly, an extreme measure, but useful for the sake of illustration), then the tension that arose from the intensity of the daily power struggle might diminish and some semblance of peace emerge. However, I’ve also created new problems in the process. By deferring to the support / office folks’ perspective exclusively, I will eventually lose touch with the customer, lose adaptability in the marketplace, and over-systematize things. You can bet that the rate of turnover among the now-under-valued and marginalized sales / field folks will skyrocket, too. The tension between these two essential groups in the organization is absolutely necessary. What isn’t certain, though, is whether that tension will ultimately work for us or work against us. How does a leader manage these kinds of tensions so they are productive? Number 2 below is a good place to start.
  2. Upgrade our relationship to tension. How comfortable are you with discomfort? If you’re anything like me, when discomfort comes knocking, you may first instinctively begin looking for ways to eliminate the discomfort. Sometimes that’s appropriate. The discomfort that comes from standing too close to a fire can be appropriately relieved by moving farther away from the fire. The normal tensions inherent in life and leadership, however, always include a degree of discomfort. It’s easy to acknowledge in our heads that discomfort is a normal and necessary part of life and leadership. It’s quite another thing, however, to live and lead like that in the real world. We may understand that a long-term investment in feedback, training, and mentoring will yield good results with a direct report. But that takes so long, and their performance now is so much below what you need, and a well-timed warning would be so much easier, wouldn’t it? Or two team members aren’t getting along. As a leader, do I engage a tension-filled, messy process of facilitating improvement in their relationship, or do I put my foot down so the annoyance goes away? Problem solved? So, how comfortable are you with discomfort? How willing are you to stay in the tension and use it for good? Search yourself. Observe yourself. Ask for feedback from trusted friends, family, colleagues. Because in life and leadership, managing and using tension well will require increasing our tolerance for discomfort. We must even learn to welcome it as good and necessary. Weighlifters get stronger by gradually adding weight to the bar. In turn, their muscles get used to heavier and heavier loads. The same can be true of us with tension and the discomfort it inevitably carries with it.
  3. Take care of ourselves. Bridges manage tension by dissipating it–spreading it out over the whole structure and ultimately transferring it into the ground. To serve its purpose, it must manage tension through dissipation day in and day out without fail. It can’t do this without regular maintenance to keep cables, trusses, roadways, abutments, and all the rest in good working order. How well are you taking care of yourself in the midst of managing the many tensions that come with life and leadership? What’s your maintenance plan? How equipped is your team to manage the tension with you so it doesn’t all depend on you?

Is it a problem to solve or a tension to manage? What’s my relationship to tension and discomfort? How well am I taking care of myself so that I can proactively use tension for good and stay in it for the long haul?

It’s not easy. But it IS worth it. Press on!