Are you leading with effort or with strain?


In the gym this morning I was sorely tempted to ask the man who was noisily lifting weights close by whether he understood the difference between effort and strain. It’s probably a good thing for my sake given his size and demeanour that I resisted the urge, but it sparked an interesting train of thought.

Some of the most effective managers and leaders I have met seem able to have the impact that they want, often in the face of extreme resistance, without showing signs of strain. While others who experience difficulties in achieving their goals may display signs of struggle and strain. In coaching conversations with some of the latter their language is often peppered with words such as ‘concern’ and ‘struggle’.

So what is the difference? Rick Carson in Taming Your Gremlin defines strain as “toil dominated by tension”. That’s it! The effort may be the same, but it is infused with anxiety and extraneous muscular tension. Paradoxically, it tends to impede progress towards goals, in part at least by generating a negative response in others.

Here’s another example taken as I waited for transport home late one evening this week outside Heathrow’s Terminal 5. I watched as evening shift workers left the building; saw their bus waiting in the distance then ran the 100m to catch it. Some folks put their heads down, strained their bodies and pelted – probably absorbed in their own anxiety. Others lifted their heads and ran quickly but with a relaxed gait that seemed to get them their faster. And even if the faster bit was just my imagination, they certainly arrived in better shape with less stress.

So when facing circumstances that you find challenging and you find yourself straining to achieve, what are some of the things you could try? What might you do to ensure that your efforts and those of your colleagues do not get consumed by the intensity of your emotional state? 

The first and most important answer is to start simply noticing; to observe yourself, to pay attention to your tension and your thoughts as a third party might watch them in a movie.  As someone once said, whilst this may sound very simple, it is far from easy. Simply noticing in this sense is the single most important step towards breaking the negative influence of strain and stress.

The second most important thing is to remember to breathe! It is a surprise to many people to discover that their tension stops them from breathing fully or on occasions at all. And stopping breathing then has all sorts of negative consequences for a person’s capacity to respond and be resourceful.

A third step I’ve found immensely helpful is to look up and to smile. This seems to work wonders on my capacity to think positively and creatively in otherwise stressful moments.

So the next time you see someone grunting and straining in the gym …..

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