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Management Research Review

How to convert bad stress into good


David Strutton Gina A. Tran

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How to convert bad stress


into good

How to convert
bad stress into
good

David Strutton
Department of Marketing and Logistics, University of North Texas,
Denton, Texas, USA, and

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Gina A. Tran
Department of Marketing & Logistics, University of North Texas, Denton,
Texas, USA and Department of Marketing, Florida Gulf Coast University,
Fort Myers, Florida, USA
Abstract
Purpose The purpose of this article is to develop three approaches that managers should use to
channel formerly negative stressors and anxieties into productively motivated behaviors. When
managers deal more deftly with naturally arising and anxiety-inducing stress, they and their
subordinates should perform more effectively simply because their levels of motivation will increase.
Design/methodology/approach The conceptual discussion is grounded in ideas and principals
adopted and/or adapted from ancient and contemporary Western and social scientific bodies of thought.
Findings This deductive essay demonstrates how the conscious choice to manage through paradox
as bad stressors arrive offers managers actual tools through which they could convert the threatening
stresses into challenging and motivating anxieties.
Originality/value Managers often seek to eliminate or choose to consciously ignore anxiety.
Either behavior, of course, is unreasonable. The sense of realism that emerges from the paradoxical
middle path introduced above should decrease the onset of such unreasonable responses to stress.
Meanwhile, managing through this middle path approach also elevates the likelihood that motivated
managers establish proper goals, break problems and challenges into manageable chunks and address
them. In the bargain, managers should become better able to convert bad stress into good.
Keywords Management, Productivity, Stress, Motivation, Anxiety, Just-enough-tension
Paper type Conceptual paper

Why so stressed?
Anxiety entails mindful or mindless states of arousal. Anxious individuals live
excessively and often less than productively in futures which may or may not arrive.
Yet, never feeling anxious is an unreasonable managerial aspiration because anxiety is
a natural response to stress. In business, anxiety is neither helpful nor harmful. It is
responses to anxiety that prove helpful or harmful (Park and Van Dyk, 2011).
Stress entails a sense of mental, emotional or physical strain. Stress is a natural
consequence of change even positive change. For example, until only recently, the
opportunity for managers to stay connected 24/7 was viewed as a positive change. But
this once-desirable option is now a stressful survival strategy as time-off has become a
bygone relic (Galinsky et al., 2005). Moreover, simply having power over subordinates
introduces many managers to extreme internal conflict and external turmoil. Often, that
stress never abates (Pearlin et al., 2005). Yet, this is another supposedly positive change.

Management Research Review


Vol. 37 No. 12, 2014
pp. 1093-1109
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
2040-8269
DOI 10.1108/MRR-06-2013-0139

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After all, most managers covet power and seek more responsibility (Strutton, 2004).
There are numerous other changes that could be spun as good or bad. The usual
suspects marketplace, consumer, technological and socio-cultural trends are all
shifting at unprecedented rates. Many managers undoubtedly view these changes as
self-rejuvenating sources of stress.
Badly managed anxiety may prove problematic for two reasons. First, too much or
too little anxiety may degrade motivation (Cassady and Johnson, 2002). Second, in the
midst of continuous changes, one thing is certain: anxiety will arrive as a partner to
stress-inducing change and abide for better or worse within business endeavors.
Anxiety can be terrible. But anxiety, like crises, may prove a terrible thing to waste.
The arrival or continuing presence of stress may help or hinder the efforts of
managers and the individuals that they lead. Yet, the consequences of stress are hardly
preordained (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007). Instead, the question of whether the arrival of
stress proves helpful or harmful may pivot, to a large degree, on how managers respond
to it. This case follows from two premises. First, if managers ignore essentially failing
to acknowledge their own anxiety, feelings of self-indulgent complacency are more
likely to flow down to and through individuals that they manage. Under such
organizational conditions, when dynamic changes or challenges inevitably arrive,
subordinates are more likely to feel overwhelmed and/or do nothing. Second, if
managers allowed stress and anxiety to overwhelm them, feelings of discomfort would
likely move down toward subordinates. These subordinates are then more likely to
respond less efficiently and without clear purpose in response to stress as it arrives.
But what would happen if managers embraced stressors and their attendant
anxieties as propitious opportunities to motivate and to focus their own and others
efforts? Powerfully motivational forces might be unleashed. Diverse writers coalesce
around this notion. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote: Anxiety [represents] the
dizziness of reason. Playwright T.S. Eliot suggested: Anxiety [can become] the
handmaiden of creativity. Feminist Angela Carter offered: Anxiety [can function as]
the beginning of conscience. What manager would not want subordinates to work with
enhanced reason, creativity or ethical consciousness?
Purpose
Stress can prove debilitating in organizational settings (Bridges, 2001). But the arrival of
stress-inducing circumstances is hardly predestined to degrade individual or
organizational performance, especially if managers strategically elect to properly
address the anxiety that accompanies stress. When that happens, the arrival of stress
can be leveraged in ways that prove advantageous to individuals and organizations.
The conscious choice to address stress through methods designed to promote
just-enough-tension, i.e. essentially, appropriately focused anxiety, within
organizations may prove a managerial differentiator. Indeed, their ability to transform
threatening stress into challenging anxiety may materially enhance the effectiveness of
managers. Got stress and its associate, anxiety? If they do, managers may have cause
to celebrate. The coupling of stress and anxiety may signal that their units are moving
forward, or at least not idling. Paradoxically, when properly managed, the anxiety that
accompanies stress may create and sustain just-enough-tension to drive units forward
successfully through changes that inevitably arise and often should be pursued by
motivated workers as the opportunities that many actually are (a paradox exists

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whenever two seemingly opposing ideas can rationally boast equal measures of power
and/or truth. Just-enough-tension, as it might emerge in response to the arrival of stress
or anxiety, is a level of tension that inspires productive rather than destructive
organizational responses to opportunities, threats or challenges as they arrive and
inspired stress and anxiety). This article develops three approaches that managers
should use to channel formerly negative anxiety into more productively motivated
behaviors. If managers deal more deftly with naturally arising anxiety-inducing stress,
they and their subordinates should perform more effectively.
Suggesting stress is a constant companion for managers is no clich. Every manager
lives it. Nor is it wrong to suggest that managers who struggle instinctively against the
anxiety-ridden conditions of contemporary managerial practice risk becoming locked
into closed loops of one-sided thinking. The presence of one-sided thinking, of course,
might constrain managers adaptability, decisiveness and potential for growth as
stress-inducing changes arrive. Managers, we suspect, often overestimate the level of
control they exercise over subordinates. But they should not underestimate the influence
that their suitable or unsuitable responses to stress-inducing changes may exercise on
reports. Employees surely watch, learn and respond based on their views of how
management responds well or badly to stress- and anxiety-inducing changes.
Converting threatening stress to challenging anxiety
Actionable differences distinguish challenge-stressors from threat-stressors (McCrae,
1984). While demands associated with their arrival unavoidably trigger anxiety,
challenging-stressors can ignite highly motivated, more productive responses to
anxiety. By contrast, anxieties ensuing from threatening-stressors, if ignored or
mismanaged, lower the prospect of properly motivated responses. When
challenge-anxiety is experienced, people usually believe they can cope (Epel and
McEwen, 1998). For them, beliefs exist that despite any emotional or psychological
demands that their anxiety is imposing, requisite resources are available to cope. When
threat-anxiety is perceived, individuals feel less able to control or influence situational
conditions. Dysfunctional or non-responsive behaviors often follow. This
threat/challenge interpretation of the relationship between stress and anxiety is
rational, useful and amenable to practical exploitation by management.
Human beings are engineered biologically, psychologically and socially to seek
homeostasis. Humans typically strive for security and relish order, predictability and
stability (Cannon, 1932). When present, these four conditions signal people have arrived
professionally or personally. The emotional comfort each condition brings is often
conflated with success. Yet, conditions of security, order, predictability and stability are
rare in managerial practice. For most managers, such conditions, no matter how
desirable, remain out of reach (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007).
Anxiety can shape decision-making because its presence influences how managers
evaluate and classify problems, perceive and manage change and/or manage and
interact with others (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007). Anxiety may push managers away from
a sense of security, order, predictability and stability. Anxietys unmanaged arrival
often locks managers in closed loops of circular logic. To mollify instinctively negative
responses to anxiety, managers must move beyond adages such as stay-focused or
remain-calm. Managers instead should seek to convert anxiety into a manageable
catalyst toward enhanced creativity, conscience, reason and motivation. One approach

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entails executing a mental jujitsu through which managers turn the deadweight power
of anxiety back on its negative self by leveraging paradox.
Anxiety, if it is well-managed, potentially offers a positive energy-enhancing,
unit-cohering catalyst to any manager who embraces the challenge of anxiety, while
others lock-into or recoil-from the perceived threat of anxiety. Not all anxiety is bad. The
good part arouses and motivates people to reduce anxiety by accomplishing tasks. The
bad part causes denial and paralysis. However, even this can be converted into
challenging stress.
Managing through just-enough-tension
Effective contemporary management usually requires skillful management of
impermanence. In the past, effective management probably depended more on an ability
to fashion certainty in the midst of disorder. Today, effective management may arise
more from an ability to lead others through continuous uncertainty, i.e. impermanence
(Ancona, 2005). This skill likely requires, in part, an ability to perpetuate the right level
of anxiety inside ones self and others. The right level of anxiety, i.e. well-managed
anxiety that promotes just-enough-tension, often may prove necessary to promote or
sustain forward-looking performance as threatening or challenging stressors
perpetually arise. In fact, effective managers may be effective in part because they
create and sustain just-enough-tension within their selves and others as anxiety is
experienced.
The presence of just-enough-tension inside business units may prompt the sort of
motivation and focus necessary to stimulate elevated and sustainable efforts as units are
buffered by anxiety (Loehr and Schwartz, 2003). During an era characterized by
permanent impermanence, the need for managers to sustain just-enough-tension is
pressing. Managers who accept the existence, nature and implications of impermanence
are less apt to become trapped in gut responses that degrade their and their
subordinates performance as anxiety rises.
Once they accept change, uncertainty and periodic disorder as natural, managers
have completed a first step toward understanding how to manage anxiety in ways that
promote, rather than suppress, motivation, efficiency and focus (Halvorson, 2012). If the
arrival of stress is managed through approaches that yield just-enough-tension,
managers should be able to initiate and sustain healthy change. Stressful circumstances
often provide unexpected, but transitory, opportunities to institute necessary
improvements.
How much tension is just enough?
The right amount of tension drives managers forward without inspiring unproductive
attempts to control, resist or submit to whatever stressful stimuli is causing anxiety.
When negative responses to anxiety are avoided, efficiencies are stimulated or
sustained. More productive energy and creative passion should be unleashed. Each
quality can then suffuse throughout individuals and organizations. When
just-enough-tension prevails, optimal states of motivation akin to not too hot, not
too-cold middle path responses aimed at converting threatening stressors into
challenging catalysts for growth and focus should follow. There are numerous
examples of middle path managerial practices. Generate ample revenue, but keep costs
low. Be innovative, but exploit old (cash) cows. Never sacrifice the long-term through too

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much emphasis on short-term; instead, find a balanced temporal focus. Successful


managers often operate grounded in a natural tension between instituting enough
change to remain relevant and forward-looking without jeopardizing current success
and comfort because too much or too little change has been initiated. No reason exists to
presume that successful management of stress, anxiety and just-enough-tension should
differ (Ancona, 2005; Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007).
Too little tension may promote contentment. Contentment and complacency logically
may go hand in hand. Also, the presence of either may impede motivated responses to
threatening or challenging changes. By definition, managers who excessively value the
status quo logically must believe everything will remain okay so long as nothing
changes. But what are the odds on such stasis remaining constant?
Too much tension may promote negativity, fear or pushback. Under such conditions,
managers may become more combative or controlling as they struggle to calm fears,
avoid risks of failure or elude pain.
Just-enough-tension presumably emerges from a managers willingness and ability
to become more comfortable with discomfort; that is, consciously deciding to lean into
and embrace impermanence. Managerial anxiety can be expressed in what managers
see, say and do (and do not do); with each expression arising as a consequence of their
thoughts or emotions. Subordinates may either be motivated or de-motivated by the
implied messages and meanings delivered by such managerial expressions.
Paradox: an underappreciated managerial value
In paradoxical face-offs, each concept has merit; each is empirically grounded. Yet, the
two ideas contradict each other. People who live out normal life spans always experience
paradox: health/sickness, resistance/submission or success/failure. Health exists only
because it temporarily dominates illness; nothing is permanent. The existence of its
opposite actually validates the other side of any paradox. Winning? Not without losing.
Pleasure cannot be appreciated fully without the absence of experience with pain. But
how does paradox apply to managers efforts to manage stress-induced anxiety for
positive organizational purposes? How does insight into the value of paradox help
managers attain and sustain just-enough-tension?
To succeed, managers must constantly and skillfully navigate between extremes.
Increase revenues; cut costs. Improve quality of service delivery; increase tempo of
service provision. Simultaneously pursue profitable but socially responsible outcomes.
If their success prerequisites were not inherently paradoxical, managers could perform
effectively by leading through one-sided, either/or points of view. They could do so, in
fact, without regard to any traps or impediments that stress and anxiety thrust into their
paths. Some managers realize this, implicitly or otherwise and adapt accordingly.
They execute based on both/and rather than either/or mindsets. Such managers
appear less likely to remain trapped by unstinting convictions about what they know.
Instead, they are more receptive to the notion of course-corrections as experiences,
information, relationships or assets are acquired, threatened or changed; that is, as
impermanence imposes its will.
Other managers reject both/and. They may suffer the consequences. Such
managers may be less likely to see the value in leading authoritatively and
collaboratively as anxiety arrives. This may represent a voluntary misfortune because
decisions to operate grounded-only on one side of any paradox can prove self-defeating.

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To be certain, half the possible inspiring or calming responses to anxiety are


preemptively eliminated. This too can prove problematic. Contemporary markets and
firms and thus their stressors change so rapidly and thus are so complex that
one-sided managerial approaches frequently will not work (Davis and Eisenhardt, 2011;
Lichtenthaler, 2009). In such settings, managerial passion and managerial logic each
should remain in play because each value will, in its time, have its place.
Managers should seek to manage, ameliorate or exploit the causes and consequences
of organizational anxiety. But managers should do so only after they have consciously
embedded their thoughts and eventual actions in the middle path between paradoxical
extremes. Supposedly, having the right friends multiplies ones pleasure and divides
ones pain. Managers should friend the middle path of paradox when anxieties arise.
Middle-path insights may paradoxically multiply managers power and divide their
impotence as they manage anxiety.
Leverage the paradox of anxiety
The management of stress is subject to laws and principles (Chodron, 2003). When
applied, these principles allow experts to anticipate that if stressed subjects respond in
certain ways to anxiety certain predictable consequences will follow. Conservation of
resources (COR) theory suggests successful responses to stress also depend on rational
mobilization and application of finite human and material resources (Hobfoll, 1989; Kets
de Vries and Miller, 1984). Elements of these COR principles and organizational
responses are each featured in the blended approach to converting bad stress into good
that follows.
This blended approach is nuanced. Yet, it is often necessary because effective
responses to organizational stress often defy simple reduction to pure managerial
principles. Mastery of stress, in our view, could also arise in part from managers ability
to apply an ancient paradox. Yin and Yang integrates the need to push with the need
to pull along with insights about the how, when and why of each movement (Wang,
2012). Yet, mastery of anxiety may also require that managers to apply an obscure
Western concept: tuchfuehling. This Prussian principle underscores the need that
leaders confront to achieve or maintain a balanced situational awareness as crisis-like
changes arise, and anxiety elevates (Neilson and Kennedy, 2010). Tuchfuehling
integrates the routine, as a necessity, with ample measures of daring and flair, as nice
to haves. Envision, for example, the difference between the bundles of values delivered
by a Volkswagen Beetle as opposed to the values delivered by a Porsche. To achieve a
balanced situational awareness by acknowledging the Yin and Yang present in most
anxiety-inducing situations is to manage at the core of paradox.
As noted above, the not-too-hot, not-too-cold middle-path-within-paradox exists as
a measurable place that managers can voluntarily decide to occupy, abandon or ignore.
Managing through a middle path within paradox decision-making framework should
provide managers with the sort of balanced situational awareness that enables them
to address change-induced anxieties more efficiently. The middle path can be visualized
as a fulcrum between too little and too much tension. Managing through middle path
approaches requires that managers concurrently balance opposing views, i.e. manage
through and with awareness of the role that paradox can play.
Various extreme path managerial styles are already widely deployed. For example,
managers often respond to anxiety-inducing changes through excessively detached or

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engaged approaches (Hicks, 2004). Others manage change through overly cautious or
reckless methods, or manifest overly pleasing to or do not-give a damn about
subordinates managerial styles. Still, others engage as demanding perfectionists or
remain utterly laissez-faire in how they respond to or ignore change and anxiety.
Unfortunately, either/or approaches lessen the likelihood that a balanced situational
awareness might be maintained or achieved as anxiety arrives.
Another point to emphasize: extreme-path managerial approaches often promote too
much or too little tension as anxieties rise (Hicks, 2004). Too much tension, issued in
response to anxiety-inducing change, could easily transmute into chaotic, badly directed
motivation. This, in turn, could promote new anxiety. By contrast, too little tension may
preclude sufficiently motivated responses to anxiety, even when vigorous reactions are
desirable.
Lehrer (2012, p. 23) suggests (t)he increasing complexity of human knowledge,
coupled with the escalating difficulty of the remaining questions [and resulting
stressors], means people must either work together or fail alone. Yet, in the end, who is
left for managers to work together with? Perhaps many, perhaps very few, eligible
candidates exist. The answer does not matter: who better to work with first than
themselves? Logic, as well as common sense, suggests that managers enjoy the
opportunity to partner more efficiently with themselves. The case constructed above
suggests they should take advantage of this opportunity. At the least, managers who
partner more efficiently with themselves benefit from the multiple perspectives that
emerge as they evaluate alternative responses to anxiety-inducing situations and move
closer to a balanced situational awareness. Once a balanced situational awareness is
achieved, changes formerly viewed as stress-threats can be treated more as challenges
(Endler and Parker, 1994; Folkman and Moskowitz, 2004; Lazarus and Folkman, 1984).
Partnering more efficiently with oneself requires that managers consciously embed
their minds and thus their decision-making in the midpoint of three crucial
paradoxes. These paradoxes are cynicism and idealism, complacency and aggression,
and arrogance and doubt (Table I).
These paradoxes can and in our view should be leveraged by managers as they
respond to anxiety-inducing circumstances. At best, awareness and actuation of each
paradox should yield more efficiently engaged managers. At least, awareness and
actuation should partially negate otherwise debilitating effects as anxiety intervenes.
Leverage the paradox between cynicism and idealism
Times and places exist where idealistic leadership is ideal. But the now in which most
managers operate is likely neither the time nor place for excessive idealism. Idealistic
individuals are often grandiose dreamers. If not absolutely blind to, grandiose dreamers
are likely comparatively less aware of or concerned about the consequences of their
behaviors. When confronting anxiety-inducing circumstances, idealistic managers are
more likely to create unreasonable visions for their units; expect more from employees
than they can reasonably deliver or avoid/delay responses to anxiety-inducing
challenges. Large quantities of less efficient energy would likely arise in response to
anxiety-generating stressors within organizations led by overly idealistic leaders. There
are times and places where cynicism is merited. However, cynical managers tend to
focus on the worst outcomes that arise or exist in their environments, and resist or
attack change and uncertainty. Indeed, cynics often light fires themselves, operating in

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Table I.
How to leverage paradox
and convert bad stress
into good

Leveraging anxiety through


pragmatic optimism

Leveraging anxiety through


constructive impatience

Leveraging anxiety through


confident humility

As stress rises, managers should


Be adaptable but purposeful
about their goals
Balance pursuit of old purposes
with development of new
purposes
Engage in reality testing and
wishful thinking
Be aware of and cautious about
everyone they presume they
know
Square facts and figures with
possibilities

As stress rises, managers should


Motivate and equip people to do
their best
Approach conflict with purpose
and openness
Square expediency with good
timing
Assign equivalent value to
winning and win-win
Square pursuit of growth with
need for stability

As Stress rises, managers should


Delegate responsibility and
authority while recognizing
others contributions
Combine clear and consistent
values with the willingness to
listen and learn from others
Believe in themselves but accept
their vulnerabilities and
shortcomings

self-rejuvenating states of crisis. Again, energy would surely be generated as stress


arrives. But such energy is likely chaotic in nature, generating heat rather than light
(Bossidy and Charan, 2004).
To create just-enough-tension as stressful changes are confronted, we believe
managers should split the difference between overly cynical and idealistic responses.
This entails pursuit of middle path approaches that permit them to perform
paradoxically as pragmatic optimists. Why? To begin with, pragmatic managers
realists that they are are more likely to seek and speak the truth, about themselves and
to others. Pragmatism presumably begins with being honest about ones strengths and
weaknesses, hopes and fears and likes and dislikes. These more honest assessments
should yield managerial insights that reside squarely at the heart of paradox. Pragmatic
managers will more likely understand how subordinates view them, and account for
how their good, bad or indifferent decisions affect reports. We believe that if pragmatic
managers are more willing to examine their motives and beliefs (effectively engaging in
internal feedback), they will also be more likely to examine feedback from others absent
reflexive desires to reject information that disconfirms what they would like to hear.
Pragmatists are also more likely to tell others like it is and follow through on
commitments (Talisse and Aiken, 2011).
Pragmatism and optimism are antonyms. Optimists, like idealists, can be dreamers.
But more significantly, optimists hope. Which is uniformly desirable in the maws of
anxiety because hopefulness illuminates possibilities or options. A broader range of
options allows optimists to more readily envision success even while mired in anxiety.
Because they see more possibilities, optimistic managers should also be more
comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability. Optimists more easily
envision excellence and great performances, and are thus more likely to inspire others to
reach toward new possibilities as stressful challenges arrive.
Still, one qualifying note of caution about our so-called special managers should be
offered. For example, Russell (in press, Management Research Review) demonstrates
that in the midst of increasing stress, too much transformative leadership can prove

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problematic. Other research suggests that excessive managerial optimism can likewise
prove problematic (Bass, 1991).
Pragmatism and optimism are paradoxical personal qualities. When consolidated,
the two elements could create special managers, to no small measure because
just-enough-tension might arise to generate productive motivations as stressors and
related anxieties emerge. This is because pragmatically optimistic managers may
motivate others through the provision of challenging assignments and inspiration
(LePine et al., 2005). Inspiration, of course, speaks to prospect of transformation, or
transformative leadership (Dvir et al., 2002).
Pragmatic-optimists might communicate their visions more openly while providing
realistic road maps that outline how to achieve them. Those who manage from this
middle path approach appear more likely to challenge subordinates by assigning
aggressive goals. But they are also more likely to provide the resources, support and
insights that will prove necessary to achieve them (Hobfoll and Shirom, 2001). Providing
the necessary resources to achieve the organizational objectives allows individuals to
maintain their personal resources (Hobfoll, 1989). Pragmatic optimists appear more
likely to ask the sorts of questions that will guide followers to places where they can
personalize new directions as their own. Pragmatic optimists should remain more
flexible even as they focus resolutely on outcomes being sought. The optimist in
managers should balance goals that are currently being pursued with discovery and
acceptance of new goals. The pragmatist in managers concurrently should be aware of
but wary about what they know with certainty and what they merely think they know,
and the managerial implications associated with these opposing conditions.
At the middle path of paradox that would arrive at the point where mindful
pragmatism and optimism intersect, an enhanced sense of a balanced situational
awareness should arise among both managers and subordinates. In such places,
formerly threatening stressors should be more readily converted into challenging
anxiety. That is, the sort that focuses and motivates.
Leverage the paradox between complacency and aggression
Just-enough-tension also might be created in response to stressful changes by managing
through the middle path between aggressiveness and complacency. Ceteris paribus, too
much aggressiveness surely promotes too much tension. Essentially, overly aggressive
individuals often try too hard at the same time they are pushing others too hard.
Complacency might naturally yield too little tension. If overly complacent, neither
managers nor managed appear likely to try hard enough. Again, motivational value can
be derived from a paradoxical middle path, a place where safer and more inspiring
environments exist for all involved parties. In this place, managers would consciously
lead through though a constructively impatient approach.
Any sense of excessive complacency presumably would discourage managers from
readily receiving or wanting change. Either inclination is generally anathema to success
in todays dynamic business environments. Complacency would likely amplify
managerial tendencies to ignore feedback or opportunities to learn and grow
professionally or personally, and understandably so: by definition the complacent are
comfortable with the status quo. Complacent managers appear more likely to avoid
confrontation with others as they seek consensus at the expense of creative or bold
solutions. Of course, consensus can be desirable. However, if consensus arrives too

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easily, one should question its value (Hammond et al., 2006). Also, in highly dynamic
and/or highly diverse environments, consensus probably should not arrive too easily.
Solutions to anxiety-inducing challenges in such settings are rarely simple (Kalev et al.,
2006). That the benefits of diversity are usually best realized after often sustained
periods of tension in which diverse perspectives of all relevant parties are not just
considered but eventually integrated has been known at least since Mary Parker Follett
voiced similar sentiments in 1857 (Follett, 2003).
Aggressive managers, in contrast, presumably have less and occasionally no regard
for how their actions impact others. They are also more likely to pursue ongoing if not
continuous change, and play to win at all costs (Stalk et al., 2004). Aggressive managers
are likewise more inclined to establish unreasonable goals. Finally, they would
presumably be more willing to use criticism or blame to manage/motivate others, and
take unnecessary risks.
Fortunately, there is the paradoxical middle path. Aggressive managers could
mollify the negatives associated with excessive assertiveness by sliding toward states
of mere impatience, without eliminating the positive qualities associated with
assertiveness. To do so, they could elect to seek out and actively value others opinions
rather than instinctively striking out boldly on their own. Aggressive managers might
simply slow down, a little, more often. They should learn more how to recognize when
they are about to commit professional suicide by attempting to lead others down paths
that no one, with good reason, wants to follow. Alternatively, they could simply appoint
a trusted associate to point out this danger. Overly complacent managers could steer
toward a more constructive middle path by dividing bigger goals into smaller, more
manageable, objectives; engaging in difficult conversations and pushing past
anticipated discomfort by occasionally doing something new. The need to identify ones
natural penchant toward leading through either excessive aggressiveness or
complacency likely will prove challenging for many managers. Particularly so, in fact,
given that such managers will be operating in stressful, anxiety-producing, contexts.
Again, the preemptive appointment of a trusted associate or superior as a sounding
board may offer a practical and productive solution.
The presence of this challenge, however, does not detract from the fact that
substantial value can be derived from the paradox of managing between two extreme
points of view. As formerly complacent leaders shift toward the middle, their now more
constructive selves should lean more willingly into challenges. Again, formerly
threatening stressors should then be viewed more as the challenging opportunities that
many actually entail. The motivation of managers would then be bolstered by more
awareness and stronger willingness to learn from mistakes and imperfections,
particularly if they are also now operating in a more pragmatically optimistic fashion.
Also, as they muster the will to shift toward the middle, formerly aggressive but now
merely impatient managers are more likely to create emotionally healthier
environments safer places where greater amounts of balanced situational awareness
prevails. Impatient managers would presumably still challenge people to do their best,
as they should. But constructive managers are more likely to provide people with the
necessary support, pursue conflict resolution with purpose and open-mindedness and
possess useful insight regarding when to stand firm or move forward (Hicks, 2004). If
managers lead through constructive impatience, the odds increase that a sweet spot can
be established between a push for growth and a pull for stability as the pincers of change

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and stress open and close. Under such conditions, relevant parties should become more
comfortable with the discomfort that change-driven anxiety generates (Dodd and
Favaro, 2007), as the motivational levels of each party rises.
Leverage the paradox between arrogance and doubt
To create just-enough-tension to spur positive motivation in the midst of stress,
managers should split the difference between arrogance and self-doubt. Here, a sense of
confident humility should prevail amongst managers. This paradoxical perspective
should constructively shape managers attitudes and decisions as they convert
threatening-stress into challenging anxiety.
Arrogance and self-awareness rarely go hand-in-hand, a primary reason why
arrogant individuals often are more self-serving, sense that they are superior to others or
manage with an aura of entitlement (Stolorow, 1975). Managers whose arrogance is
never leavened by reasonable doubt appear more likely to motivate others through fear,
intimidation or manipulation; engage in autonomous decision-making and exaggerate
their contributions (Kuhn, 2006). Arrogant managers can surely gin up energy within
themselves and among others. But such energy is more likely to prove dysfunctional.
Under such leadership, formerly threatening stressors might easily be transformed into
even more threatening stressors.
Managers dogged by excessive self-doubt are likely to question their abilities
(Riordan, 2012). This is hardly a productive asset during stressful times. Self-doubters,
by definition, lack confidence in their power to influence events and often feel weighed
down by fear. When confronting stressful circumstances, self-doubters appear more
likely to delegate too much responsibility to others, and accept less than optimal
performance from others to avoid confrontation. This choice, in turn, would often
generate more stress (Riordan, 2012). Doubt-plagued managers might be more hesitant
to initiate strong courses of action that often proves necessary to preempt or skirt
stressful circumstances that are causing anxiety. Even though self-doubting managers
might generate energy as anxiety-inducing stress approaches, that energy is unlikely to
prove effective.
Every human is a composite of different traits. Even stereotypical masculine and
feminine characteristics are, in the end, mere composites (Pickard and Strough, 2003). It
follows: few managers would ever be purely arrogant or utterly self-doubting. To
underscore why this matters, consider how ancient Chinese understood the workings of
the world. In their view, Yin energy is dark, intuitive, compassionate and receptive,
while Yang energy is bright, strong, focused and active. The Yin and Yang concepts
each contain perceptible elements of its opposite (Wang, 2012). Consequently,
confident-to-the-point-of-arrogant managers possess and are capable of displaying
elements of humility. Even managers who doubt their own ability to successfully
navigate the velocity and complexity of change presumably most managers
occasionally possess and are capable of displaying appropriate elements of confidence
(McCullough, 2002).
Managers should possess and project confidence in themselves and others, but
remain grounded in humility. Paradoxically, those who manage anxiety while operating
in the gap between excessive arrogance and self-doubt (i.e. a place where confidently
humble perspectives abide), should more readily accept their own limitations and
vulnerabilities and listen to and learn from others. Paradoxically, these desirable

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outcomes would emerge because those managers possessed sufficient confidence to act
in this fashion. Confident managers who demonstrate humility are more likely to
develop and celebrate others strengths and contributions, empower reports and
recognize and reward their insights, efforts and successes. Under such conditions,
threatening stressors are more likely to be received and responded to as the challenges
that they actually often represent. When this happens, the motivations of managers and
those they manage to actually do something positive and functional in response to the
challenges causing the stress and anxiety should also increase.
Closing the loop: converting bad stress to good motivation
Managers experience anxiety whenever dynamic forces simultaneously push and pull
them into the gap between the reality of a demanding present and the prospect of a
successful future that itself will have dynamic threats and opportunities (Murphy, 2013).
Managers are pulled into stressful contexts (i.e. situations) when circumstances they
seek to change enter their professional domain. Managers are pushed into stressful
contexts when seeking to seize opportunities or envisioning better futures for
themselves or organizations. Managers can enter these contexts intentionally,
purposefully and with high levels of motivation, or they can enter aimlessly, essentially
against their will. Whether they are pushed or pulled, or enter these contexts
intentionally or against their will, managers should understand they should avoid
operating from one-sided perspectives on arrival. One-sided responses perpetuate rigid,
impulsive and stovepipe-like responses to stressful changes. At that point, their
resultant anxiety is likely to increase.
The presence of anxiety influences the perceptions, feelings and decisions of
managers; and what they say and how they say it. Through their attitudes and their
actions, managers also influence the motivations of others around them, and what they
feel, think, say and do. This remains true regardless of whether anxiety is managed well,
badly or ignored. When subordinates are led by managers who sense or act as if too little
tension is present, they appear likely to lose enthusiasm as their levels of engagement
and productivity decline. Yet, when employees perceive that their managers are too
anxious, they might more readily lose focus and become more anxious and
mistake-prone themselves. But if managers promote just-enough-tension in response to
stressful contexts, the likelihood that employees will be challenged to do their best, no
matter how threatening the stressors being encountered initially appear to be, may
increase. Managers should appreciate the fact that they can turn threatening stressors
into catalysts for growth by leading with just-enough tension. The arrival of anxiety can
marshal positive forces, or its presence can inhibit or destroy the prospects for positive
organizational movement. The outcome, we believe, can be influenced through
conscious and strategic managerial choice.
Successful management of anxiety should not be a random event. The ability to turn
threatening stress into challenging anxiety can arise from a predictable set of planned
responses. Those responses entail leaning more vigorously into stress-inducing changes
by leading from a middle path that paradoxically features pragmatically optimistic,
constructively impatient and confidently humble managerial decision-making. These
responses, in turn, should create more balanced situational awareness because
managers often irrational emotions will be sublimated as their more logical calculations
are elevated even when the most daunting stressors are being confronted.

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Most people assume that sustainable achievement (at any task) entails a measure of
talent plus preparation. But as experts examine the careers of successful people, it is
becoming more apparent the influence of preparation and execution exceeds that of
talent (Liebl, 2010). The ability to manage and master anxiety may be the
underappreciated part of that preparation. Anxiety is itself paradoxical. The same
factors that make anxiety debilitating to some should also yield opportunities for those
managers who are prepared and willing to exploit the legitimate and referent powers
that logically flows toward individuals who are able to manage anxiety effectively.
Myriad descriptions of what constitutes the right leadership approach exist. The
transactional versus transformational leadership paradox is one typology (Bass, 1991).
Another typology follows from the belief that leaders can perform effectively either as
directors or facilitators of change (Edwards, 1989). Transformational and transactional
leadership styles diverge widely, essentially paradoxically, from one another. The
notion that leaders can succeed primarily as directors or facilitators of change is
similarly paradoxical.
When confronting stress-inducing change, we believe transactional leaders
would generally motivate others by setting goals and promising rewards for desired
performance. In similar contexts, transformational leaders would generally strive to
create learning opportunities and stimulate/inspire others to solve problems.
Directors of change, meanwhile, would attempt to shape and reshape internal or
external organizational opinions and the environmental landscape by dint of
charisma and powers of persuasion. Facilitators of change would more likely accept
that stressful situational constraints usually cannot be fundamentally reshaped by
one individuals efforts. Yet, facilitators would generally understand and respect the
opportunity and the need to change that prevail in their relevant environments and
consequently fashion tactics to exploit or avoid being exploited by anxieties that
accompanied those changes.
One final paradox: directors of change and transformational leaders are like
revolutionaries (Burns, 1978). In contrast, facilitators of change and transactional
leaders are akin to status quo grinders. Fruitful outcomes often emerge from points
where opposing lines of managerial reasoning and responses intersect. When anxiety is
managed with just-enough-tension, the intersection arises at the middle path of paradox.
Even if these two leadership styles (i.e. transformational versus transactional leaders, or
directors versus facilitators of change) are not strictly paradoxical, a combination of
each approach, if well-executed, seems integral to the successful management of
anxiety. Managers who hue closely to the middle path of paradox as they leverage the
onset of stress and anxiety by creating just-enough-tension should naturally manifest
key elements of transactional and transformational leadership traits in their managerial
decisions and actions and, by turns, successfully function as both directors and
facilitators of change.
Still, the final value of the paradoxical middle path may not follow from its
prospects of generating more resolute or efficient responses in the face of stress.
Instead, it is the realism that following the middle path way would impose. Futures
are always uncertain; things do fail; people rightfully do feel stressed and anxious.
Consequently, managers often seek to eliminate or choose to consciously ignore
anxiety. Either behavior is unreasonable. The sense of realism that emerges from
the paradoxical middle path should decrease the onset of such unreasonable

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responses to stress. Managing through the paradoxical middle path also elevates the
likelihood that motivated managers establish proper goals, break problems and
challenges into manageable chunks, address them and in the process, convert bad
stress into good.

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Limitations and future research


Despite the general managerial appeal and potential contributions of the deductive
suggestions that are conceived in this paper, more sophisticated empirical analyses
clearly should be conducted to corroborate the suggested relationships and reveal
potentially useful relationships that were not identified. Like all conceptual papers, this
one essentially offers a set of propositions waiting to be tested. Yet, this study makes no
claim that a comprehensive list of the managerial factors that might facilitate the
conversation of bad stress into good organizational outcomes has been examined. But
the conceptual baseline developed above might function as a platform on which such
factors could be identified through future research. Future research should empirically
address exactly what are the most practical ways for managers to convert what they or
their subordinates perceive as threatening stress into challenging and thus
organizationally helpful anxiety. En route to this universally desirable end (because
stress and anxiety are themselves surely universal), more refined definitions of exactly
what constitutes just-enough-tension or balanced situational awareness should also
be empirically developed.
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About the authors
David Strutton is Professor and Director, New Product Development, at the University of North
Texas. Previously, he served as Chair of the Department of Marketing & Logistics at the
University of North Texas from 2001 to 2006. Strutton is coauthor of Marketing Channels: A
Relationship Management Approach; 2E - McGraw-Hill Irwin), and author or co-author of six
other books. Struttons primary research interests relate to B2B relationships, management and
marketing strategy, leadership and creativity, and new product development. Strutton has
published extensively in outlets such as the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal
of Advertising Research, Journal of Business Research, Journal of MacroMarketing, Journal of
Personal Selling and Sales Management, Industrial Marketing Management, Journal of Business
Ethics, Business Horizons, the Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, San Francisco

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Chronicle, New York Times, Redbook Magazine, Harvard Business Review Management/Mentor,
Management Research Review, and others.
Gina A. Tran is a PhD Candidate and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Marketing and
Logistics at the University of North Texas. Trans primary research interests include advertising,
e-word-of-mouth communications, and consumer behavior. To date, her research has been
published in Journal of Advertising Research, Business Horizons, Management Research Review,
and Proceedings of the American Marketing Association Winter Educators Conference, Society
for Marketing Advances, Academy of Marketing Science and European Institute of Retailing and
Services Studies Conference. Previously, Tran worked as a buyer for Neiman Marcus Online and
Michaels Inc. Gina A. Tran is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:
Ginaatran@yahoo.com

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