Converting negative worker stress into positive results

Anxiety entails mindful or mindless states of arousal. Anxious workers often live obsessively, excessively and unproductively in futures that may not arrive.

Gina Tran headshot (003)

Gina Tran, Ph.D.

Yet, never feeling anxious is an unreasonable aspiration. Elevated levels of anxiety are a natural response to workplace stress.

But anxiety’s anxiety is neither helpful nor harmful; responses to anxiety prove helpful or harmful.

Managing anxiety

For two reasons, poorly managed anxiety proves problematic. First, too much or too little anxiety may degrade worker motivation. Second, in the midst of continuous changes driven by “creatively destructive” technologies, interminably low economic growth or threats of terrorism one thing is certain: anxiety will arrive as partner to stress-inducing changes and exist for better or worse within organizations.

Anxiety can prove terrible. But like crises, anxieties may be terrible things to waste. Particularly given that managers might leverage the arrival anxiety in ways that benefit workers and organizations.

If managers address stress through methods designed to promote just-enough-tension their actions may improve their workers’ lots. When properly managed, anxiety that accompanies change may create just-enough-tension to drive workers forward through changes that inevitably arise and opportunities which should be pursued.

Actionable differences exist between challenge — and threat-stressors. The arrival of stress, when converted into a challenge, can ignite highly-motivated, productive responses to anxiety.

Managers can convert previously threatening stress into challenging anxiety by managing paradox. Paradoxes exist when two opposing ideas can rationally boast equal claims to power or truth. In paradoxical face-offs, each side has merit; each is empirically grounded. Too-little-tension may promote contentment, first-cousin to self-satisfaction and adversary to motivated worker responses to threatening, stress-inducing changes.

Too-much-tension may promote negativity, fear or pushback. Where just-enough-tension abides, optimal worker motivational states — akin to “not-too-hot” “not-too-cold” middle-way responses that convert threatening stressors into challenging catalysts for focus, effort and growth — should follow. Managers should constantly navigate between the extremes, leveraging the paradox of anxiety to convert bad stress into good.

To create just-enough-tension as stressor changes arrive, managers should split the difference between overly cynical and idealistic responses. This tact entails a middle-path approach that permits managers to perform paradoxically as pragmatic-optimists in the face of threatening stressors.

Their pragmatic responses should bolster reports through realistic and truthful counsel; meanwhile, optimistic managers would provide grounded hope to workers that they can prevail against anxiety-inducing problems or threats.


Another way to leverage the paradox of anxiety is by managing through complacent-aggression as stressors arrive. Ceterus paribus, excessive aggressiveness, promotes too much tension. Overly aggressive managers try too hard while pushing others too hard. Yet if they respond too complacently, neither management nor workers will try hard enough to eradicate or control problems creating the stress.

The third managerial approach through which just-enough-tension can be created entails leveraging the paradox between arrogance and doubt. At this nexus, a sense of confident-humility should prevail. Leading from this paradoxical perspective should constructively shape managerial decisions in ways that permit them to convert threatening-stress into merely challenging-anxiety.

David Strutton is professor of marketing and logistics at the University of North Texas. Strutton’s research has been published in the world’s leading marketing and logistics journals for more than 20 years.
Gina A. Tran is an assistant professor of marketing at Florida Gulf Coast University. Her research has been published in Business Horizons, Journal of Advertising Research, Management Research Review, and Psychology & Marketing. Her primary research interests include social media marketing, e-commerce and how technology impacts consumer behavior.  They are the authors of ‘How to convert bad stress into good’ in Emerald Group Publishing journal Management Research Review