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  • Have you experienced toxic tension?
  • What is healthy tension?

I was attending a Chamber of Commerce meeting and talking with a fellow attendee. He was telling me about his work situation. Based on what he told me, I asked if he was in a toxic work environment. He responded what do you mean? Work is work. I asked him the following questions to help him determine if his work environment was toxic. I asked him to describe his relationship with his boss and colleagues. He wasn’t sure where he stood with his boss, because the only time feedback was given was when mistakes were made. As expected, he got along with some colleagues better than others. However, he wasn’t always sure who could be trusted, because gossip was commonplace. And organizational leadership consciously or unconsciously rewarded competition over collaboration which eroded trust. He wanted to advance in the organization, but professional development was not a priority in any form. I asked if work-life balance is important to him. It is, but not to his boss. He is frequently asked to work after hours and weekends and given assignments with short turnaround times. He also noted he spent more time training new employees as employee turnover was relatively high. That type of work environment could be an example of toxic tension. The tension comes in the form of needing the paycheck the job provides but disliking the anxiety that accompanies it. Are there better work environments?

Of course, there are, and these environments include tension also. Toxic and healthy tensions exist in the workplace. It is difficult for a single employee to modulate, but leaders can. If you are in a leadership position this blog is for you. If your unit or organization is filled with too much or too little tension you might have your subordinate’s hands, but you won’t have their hearts. They will do enough to get by until a better opportunity comes along. 

Leaders need to stimulate enough tension to keep work interesting. When work requirements and expectations are low, work is boring; and the day passes slowly. On the other hand, leaders shouldn’t create so much tension that employees feel anxious or insecure. In other words, they need to find the optimum tension level. That is a tension level high enough to challenge and motivate, but not so high as to be overly stressful. Help employees see the big picture so they are collectively aware of what they need to do to work collaboratively to keep the organization competitive. This is healthy tension.

How is the tension level in your workplace?