The difference between tension and stress

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 04-28-13

Although I’m a bit behind on many things, The Lean Edge asked a question that I’m just now getting around to answering. Is highlighting problems stressful and increased pressure on workers?

There is a major difference between tension and stress, and this difference when not understood causes tremendous problems. Leaders trying to create tension end up creating stress, and leaders trying to avoid creating stress end up eliminating healthy.

Stress is knowing that you’re not where you’re supposed to be, and not knowing what to do about it.

Tension is understanding the gap with a clear view of current reality, a vision of the ideal state, and action to close the gap.

Both put pressure on you, but one is usually manifested in physiological damage while the other creates focus and action. You decide which you’d rather have. But the line between the two is quite narrow, and it only takes a few off-hand comments to generate stress. There are plenty of leaders out there who purposely create stress, but most honestly do it by accident. They do intend to put pressure on the organization, but not necessarily through stress.

The role of tension has 3 core components. First, we must help people clearly see current reality for what it is, and understand why it is. Highlighting problems is part of that clear understanding of current reality. Second, we must define a better state, an ideal state, something that gives them direction to go forward in. This isn’t just about a result, but how things will be different. Third, we need action to start to close the gap. Not necessarily a grand plan that covers everything, but to start moving along the intended vector.

What do you do in order to create tension? And how can you tell when you’ve inadvertently created stress?

You can see other answers to this question on The Lean Edge.


  • Hi Jamie

    I always look at good presure being anything, that we as people can do something to solve, bad presure is getting caught up on things we can do nothing about. Anything that is recorded or tracked whether it gets posted for all to see or not will create pressure on those involved, it becomes negative when people are not empowered to take action to improve a situatian that causes the result being tracked. When people have the simple ability to take action to eventually improve the pressure of being judged by a result becomes farless threatening and instead becomes a motivator. April 29, 2013 at 10:19 am
  • Where there is push, there is pressure. Where there is pull, tension.

    Jon Miller May 8, 2013 at 1:24 am