Tensions & Problems

Understanding the difference between tensions, problems, and moving beyond both.

From startup to non-profit to global conglomerate, you will have problems. Every organization is made of human beings, and, as we all know, humans are not perfect. Problems will exist. As a leader at any level in your organization, it is your job to solve those problems.

You will also have tensions. It is not your job to solve tension. Your job is to manage tension. The question is, how do you know the difference between a “tension” and a “problem”?

A Tension is Not a Problem

Tension is a not a problem, but rather a function of natural. There is tension in the twig that holds the acorn to the oak tree, until the acorn is ripe and ready to fall from the tree. If the acorn falls too soon, it’s not ready to hit the ground and become a new oak tree (or a squirrel’s lunch). There is tension between a canoe paddle and the water. If you stop paddling, the canoe stops moving. There is tension between people, because people are unique and different. Separating people or forcing them to not interact stops productivity. Tension is to be expected, harnessed, and managed. Tension is natural. When you manage tension appropriately, the arrow flies from the bow with deadly accuracy.

Tension is to be expected, harnessed, and managed. It is natural.

A Problem Means Something is Broken

If the soccer ball is flat, out of air, that’s a problem. No pump, no soccer match. When software doesn’t function or you get something akin to the now defunct BSOD (blue screen of death), you have a problem. That’s a bug, and it needs to be fixed. What priority that bug rates is another discussion. When your car runs out of gas or electric power, you can’t get to your destination in that vehicle. If your leg is broken, you cannot walk without severe pain. These are problems. They have clear remedies or solutions. Clear does not always mean “easy”. When an athlete tears an ACL, the solution is clear: 8–12 months of hard, painful physical therapy. Clear does not always mean easy, but there is a solution.

They have clear remedies or solutions.

Communicating the Difference

Solve problems and manage tensions. That’s a leader’s job. Or is it? As the leader of your organization, you cannot solve every problem, nor can you manage every tension. However, what you can do is help your team recognize the difference and act accordingly. It may be a myth, but Bill Gates is often credited with “assigning the hardest problems to the laziest people, because they will always find the simplest solution.” Whether or not you believe that Bill Gates would have “lazy people” report directly to him is irrelevant. The point is that Bill Gates did not try to solve every problem and neither can you.

But you can identifying — with your team — when something is a problem to be solved, fixed, removed, or otherwise overcome versus when there is a tension that is a natural occurrence that can and must be managed, harnessed, and leveraged for success. Doing exactly that is your job.

Go Boldly Forward

If you tell someone to take an Advil for a broken leg or not to speak with another co-worker ever again, the leg will not heal and the tension will grow into a major problem

Once you know what you’re dealing with, whether a problem or a tension, your team can move forward knowing that either the problem will be solved or the tension will be embraced.