01 Bob Price

Tension and stress sometimes create inappropriate responses
Tension and stress sometimes create inappropriate responses


The workplace exerts pressure on people. Everybody.

Some of that pressure is not just necessary, but it’s beneficial. Without it people wander aimlessly through life. No responsibilities. No commitments.

Think about accomplishments. Let’s make it even more personal though. Think about your own accomplishments. Now, narrow it down to your biggest accomplishments. Go ahead. Think about the things you’ve done for which you feel the most amount of pride. It doesn’t matter if others would agree with you. Think about the things that matter most to YOU.

Do a few things leap out to you? I hope so. And I hope you’ve got them in mind right now.

Now, while you’re thinking about them…think of the tension or stress that was present in your life when you were chasing and accomplishing those things. Was there a hard-charging parent? A teacher? A boss?

Were you putting extra pressure on yourself because of pressures from others – or from a circumstance that demanded some meaningful action?

People are confronted with a variety of situations that can drop them to their knees, propel them to heights they never dreamed possible or crush them under a weight of frustration and hopelessness. There are lots of variables.

  • Time – when the pressure or stress is exerted on us
  • Location – where we’re at when it hits and where it hits us (physical, relationship, etc.)
  • Stakes – what’s at risk? (life/death, success/failure, health/sickness, etc.)
  • Duration –  a car wreck happens in seconds while a 2-year work project lasts much longer
  • Support – must you go it alone, or do you have help and support?
  • Belief – it’s not just the confidence required to get through it, but it’s the belief that you can make something of the experience (and have a positive outcome)
  • Hope – the ability to look past present distress to a brighter tomorrow

Some combinations weigh much heavier than others. And of course, not all tension or pressure is positive. Sudden death buckles the knees of the strongest. High stakes fast.

We can control many things, but not everything. Prototypical type A personalities tend to be control freaks, easily frustrated when things don’t go as planned. Proof positive that tension or stress management is largely personality driven. That doesn’t mean we’re unable to improve ourselves. Nor does it mean we can excuse our own bad behavior (or anybody else’s). Even so, it can help us to better understand our own inclinations and the inclinations of our team. That’s among the power of assessments, especially those designed to reveal personality and communication leanings. I’ve even encouraged husbands and wives to use them to improve their marriages because how we process information – including stresses and tensions – matters!

There are many paid for assessments that are very worthwhile, but there are some free online versions that can also help us in learning how to better manage our own lives. Here’s one and here’s another.

Can a person improve their resilience?

Can we improve our ability to display greater grace under fire?

Yes. And yes.

While it’s clear that some of us are thinner skinned than others, much of our behavior, including how we handle tension, stress and pressure is sheer habit. We develop habits and continue down the same road we’ve always traveled until we’re forced to take a different road, or until we arrive at some heightened sense of self (usually caused by some other pressure or tension that outweighs the existing one – I.E. a family intervenes in the drug addiction of a loved one by putting new pressure on the situation, “keep doing drugs, deny our intervention, and we’ll no longer support you”).

Knee-jerk reactions.

Temper tantrums.

Losing cool.

All behaviors that may be more habit than we’d like to admit. Sure, it’s possible that we never – or rarely – behave that way (or any number of other ways). But when we’re looking at workplace behavior it’s fairly safe to assume that the person who has displayed a history (and that’s an important point) of some behavior under tension is likely to display that same behavior the next go round. It’s why we tend to label people. We characterize people based on how we’ve seen them behave time and time again. “Once a duck, always a duck,” we say.

And that brings another pressure on top of whatever pressures are already in play. Now we have to manage the work, the situation and all the other moving parts of a thing – but we have to now consider how this person is going to behave under fire!


Just when we need to focus we’re distracted by poor behavior. And it may be our own. Or it may be the poor behavior of a teammate. Or a boss. As if having a strict deadline on a project isn’t enough, now we’ve got to consider a new (or not so new) people element. Stress, tension and pressure are now compounded making matters worse. And putting us in a circumstance not likely to bring about our best effort.

So how do we deal appropriately with pressure, tension and stress?

There’s no single right answer. I suppose it’s as individualized as DNA. Okay, maybe not that individualized, but there’s a variety of possible successful combinations.

We know this much about it. There’s got to be relief. Some release. Some way to lower it. Elevated oil pressure in an engine will likely cause seals to fail requiring major (and expensive) repairs. Elevated pressure or tension can cause things to break. Relationship. Communication. Systems. Processes. Workflow. Teamwork. Team chemistry. They’re all up for grabs if pressure gets too high.

But low pressure doesn’t work. Low oil pressure results in a lack of lubrication of vital components. Friction and heat will result in major break downs. Low pressure at work will break everything that high pressure can. That same list I just mentioned…they’re all at risk under low pressure, too.

Many years ago I hired an assistant. She was very capable and personable. Unfortunately, I had inherited a CFO who was petty. He could be very irritating because he was always more concerned with assessing blame than finding a remedy. After almost a full day of enduring this finger pointing behavior from the CFO, the pressure of the day took its toll. And she was not the subject of his finger pointing, but she was directly involved in hearing it. For hours on end. At some point, reports came to me that my assistant had gone outside and screamed at the top of her lungs!

Proof that pressure needs to be released. It can be controlled like a valve that gets intentionally turned, or it can be uncontrolled like an explosion.

Unable to cope with an irritating personality of a superior, my assistant simply couldn’t cope any longer. Thankfully, she didn’t scream inside the building. Of course, caught screaming outside didn’t do her much good either – as far as reputation management goes. And since my CFO was an old college buddy of the owner of the company, it would be a few years later before I was able to move him along…my assistant decided she simply couldn’t withstand the pressure of working with him in any capacity. I was rather envious of her at the time. 😀 Thankfully, I was able to find a personality that could better manage and tolerate the CFO. It was no small feat.

There is truth that some people need to be matched with the job, but some people need to adapt to the job. The odds of any one person finding the one ideal job is not only fantasy, but it’s unrealistic. It’s like the notion that for every one man is the one right woman. No, there are likely many “right” women for any one man. Even so, there are also many wrong women, just as there are many wrong people suited for a particular job or project.

Pressure, tension and stress show the kinks. It also shows the grace. That’s all a good thing.

But let’s get this discussion back on track. The quandary is properly handling or responding to the pressure. It’s about us being able to do it better. It’s also about us helping our people do it better. It’s about accountability – our own and our responsibility to impose it others.

The Dashboard

I’m likely to talk about this more in the future so this is a fine place to talk about the dashboard. It’s like the instrument panel of your car. You can see water temperature, oil pressure, fuel levels, electrical strength and a host of other vitals. Each of these things has an acceptable range. A max and a min. There’s a good range, a safe range and an unacceptable or unsafe range. Some of the tolerances are tight, meaning the range is pretty narrow. Others, like your fuel levels are pretty wide.

The same is true in the work place. The problem is too few people construct a meaningful dashboard, or they take their eyes off of it. Like the person who runs out of gas because they ignored that low fuel indicator or the gas gauge, it’s not the fault of the dashboard. We’ve got to have accurate measurements and indicators AND we’ve got to pay attention. Close attention. But more than that, we’ve got to respond to what the dashboard is telling us.

I’m not so much a NASCAR fan as I’m a fan of watching and observing the in-race adjustments. It’s fascinating to me that winning NASCAR drivers are not just the guys who can drive the fastest. They’re the guys who can communicate the car’s strengths and weaknesses back to the crew chief so he can implement the proper changes at the next pit stop. As the race winds down, the car that’s been able to make the proper adjustments to get around the track the fastest is usually going to have a strong finish, or win! With a properly adjusted car I suppose almost any drive could win. The trick is having a driver who can make the car better…not just drive it.

Apply that to yourself and your team. First, you need to construct your own dashboard. You have to be able to see the pressure levels (that’s today’s topic). You also have to know the acceptable range. If the pressure is too low the performance will be too low, too. If the pressure is too high, the engine might blow. What’s the range? And it may be different for different people, right? You’ve got people who you pile under project after project and they seem to always take it in stride. Be careful. Good air pressure in a tire is a great thing, but the faster the speed, the higher the temperature, the more it’ll expand…and risk blowout. The dangers of blowouts? You don’t see them coming. Keep tabs on the person who seems unflappable. Even those people have a breaking point.

As the leader, YOU have dashboard responsibility. Nobody else does. They’re not driving. They only see a few instruments or measurements. You see all of them and understand how they work together (or how they’re supposed to). That puts more pressure on you – pressure to manage the pressure. Ironic, huh? It’s the stuff of leadership.

Today, as always, it’s about exploration. Provoking thought. Helping you look for insights.

Team members have to always be within tolerance levels so they can operate at optimum levels in getting the work done. Sometimes, a team member can’t operate within those parameters and you’re responsible to do something about it. Like a NASCAR crew chief you have to be responsible for getting the car right. Making the necessary adjustments. Because the success or failure of the team hinges on it.

Not everybody can be a winning NASCAR driver or a winning crew chief. Those people have a special capacity for tension, pressure and stress. It doesn’t mean they never raise their voice. It doesn’t mean they never get angry. But it does mean they handle things well. Not perfectly, but well. They know how to keep the team moving forward. Their jobs depend on it.

Even champion drive Tony Stewart has been guilty of losing his cool after being spun out by an opponent. It happens. But it’s not habitual. And it’s not long lasting. How he handles it within the organization is unknown, but I’m betting his commitment to the team is clearly understood. I’m also betting he holds himself to a higher standard making it easy for him to fall on the sword when he needs to.

Leaders have to manage more pressures than others. They have to manage UP, DOWN, SIDEWAYS, INSIDE and OUTSIDE. Most everybody else does, too – but for the leader the stakes are higher and so are the pressures! Higher altitude does that.

It’s a full-time task to manage your own pressures and here I am telling you that you also have to help manage the pressures on your staff? Yep, leadership is hard. Unfair at times. Always burdensome!

For now, think about the OPTIMUM RANGE. Team members have to always remain in the optimum range else failure is bound to happen. It’s just a matter of time.

Don’t get hung up making sure everything is ideal with you or all your team. Just make sure everybody is operating within acceptable tolerances.

The old tyrant of ITT, Harold Geneen, used to say, “Managers must manage.” He was right.

What he meant is that managers must find a way. Leaders must find solutions. So must crew chiefs and drivers. Sometimes the way is to correct behavior. Sometimes it’s to train. Sometimes it’s to discipline. Sometimes it’s to replace the part (the person unable or unwilling to work within the acceptable pressure range).

Think about how you can build a dashboard that will help you better manage OPTIMAL PERFORMANCE. That means you’ve got to find effective ways of measuring pressure, tension and stress because those are engine killers.


Scroll to Top