Tension is the state of being stretched. It can be caused by a force that either pulls or pushes another object, person, or situation. Tension can be found in relationships between people, businesses, and groups of people. In the natural world, it can be found on the surface of water as it resists an external force.
Within a network of people, tension can be felt due to important or impactful events. Savvy managers and leaders can also use it as a tool to alter outcomes by making people feel uncomfortable. This will sometimes force people to make choices that affect outcomes. Carefully placing the right message in the right place at the right time can create a strong enough force that can either strengthen or break organizations.
Creative tension is caused by taking a position that is emotionally, intellectually, or physically in opposition to another. When the new position is viewed as a whole, or in juxtaposition, they can be used to manipulate form, space, and order. This is a primary concept and useful tool within art and architecture.
Stretched to the breaking point, people can crumble under pressure or perform amazing feats of skill and strength. The amount of tension that a human body or organization can endure can be increased over time with practice and general awareness of the forces that are acting upon it.
The absence of tension is just as important as its presence. The freedom that no pressure can bring will feel like a release. The void created by the absence of duress or obligations can be liberating as much as it can be debilitating.
Be mindful of the tension that you create or have the ability to create when working with people. It can be used for effect to shape outcomes and drive people to higher levels of performance as it forces them to make choices about the resources they have at their disposal.
[Photo: The MLK Library in Washington, DC designed by Mies Van der Rohe. This is a balanced composition which has reduced the tension in the image. Tension can be increased by moving it into an asymmetrical pattern.]