Stress Is Hopelessness, Tension Is Potential

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 04-24-23

Stress is hopelessness

Stress is better understood today, and in particular its impact on our physical health. In our worst vicious circles, stress about poor health can lead to even further decline in health.  Acknowledgement of stress is also now more acceptable, and not just a sign of weakness that you have to “push through.” But how do we end up in stress, and what does an organization do to combat it?

For starters, let’s define stress, and then we will contrast that with tension. Stress is knowing that you’re not where you’re supposed to be, and you don’t know what to do about it. Contextually, from an organizational standpoint, that is usually about performance. Your customer service scores are low, or you are over budget, or your product releases don’t compare to the benchmarks. None of those things are good. However, if you don’t know why you are there, or what to do about it, that results in stress. Stress is hopelessness, because there is nothing in those conditions that gives you hope. 

Ultimately, stress then results in one of two outcomes. One is inactivity. Inactivity is rarely good when you’re not where you need to be. This is the “deer in the headlights” outcome. For anyone that actually drives out in the country at night, you probably realize that the decisions made by deer in these circumstances are often the worst decisions. 

The other outcome can best be described as “flailing about.” These wild swings can look like jumping to conclusions, overreacting, inconsistency of decisions, and more. Some may read that description and say “it’s like that every day!” Well, if your organization lives under stress, then yes, it probably is every day. 


Tension is potential 

The goal is not the removal or avoidance of stress. The goal is to achieve tension. Tension is what creates a potential for progress. I say only potential because progress is not guaranteed, and there are of course many ingredients needed to achieve actual results. 

Tension is different than stress in the following ways. First, you know where you are and have a clear understanding of why this is where you are. Second, you have a clear vision, understanding, or description of where you have to be. “Go faster” is not a well-defined outcome, but “improve speed by 20%” is a clear destination, even if that destination is understood to be temporary. 

Third, you have a clear plan to move forward. Notice that I didn’t say a clear plan to close the gap. You may only have a first step, but that first step is what can help convert hopelessness into potential. 

Creating tension is desirable. Tension is active. Tension drives learning and experimentation. Tension is what helps us feel alive. 


The same, but different

Tension and stress can very much feel like the same thing if you’re not closely paying attention. Tension and stress are both uncomfortable. As I describe in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, that’s a good thing. You must get out of your comfort zone. You don’t learn in the comfort zone, and therefore you don’t make progress when you’re stuck in the comfort zone. 

But there is more to it than getting out of the comfort zone, because as described above, in one experience of discomfort you are in stress and the other you are in tension. And many cannot tell the difference. In the moment, stress and tension can feel very similar. 

How do we manage this conflict? By paying attention to the ingredients for tension. Whether we become aware of them when they are already there, and use them to recognize that we’re in tension and not stress, that makes it easier to embrace the situation as it stands. When those ingredients are not there, then we must lean into helping bring them to fruition, and convert what is in fact stress into a situation of tension. In doing so, we have created the potential for progress and success.