“I have a tension!” or “Do you have any tensions with that” are things you hear all the time in our organization. But what is a tension, exactly? And what do you do with them?


Tensions are the fuel of the organization. They are what drives us forward.

But what is a tension, exactly?

A person’s felt sense that there is a gap between the current reality and a potential future. The Circle processes member’s Tensions during its Governance and Tactical meetings. This approach ensures that Governance and operational changes are driven by real experience rather than theory. (source)
You are responsible for comparing the actual expression of your Role’s Purpose and Accountabilities to your vision of their ideal potential, to identify gaps between the two (each gap is a “Tension”). You are then responsible for trying to resolve those Tensions. (source)

From these descriptions we can take away a few important points:

  • A tension is merely a gap between how the current situation is and how the situation could be (according to your vision of the ideal potential of your roles). The current situation could be great, and has the potential to become even better 👉 tension! Or...the current situation could be a problem that needs to be fixed 👉 tension!
  • That gap can be big or small, easy to solve or very complicated. Tension is a neutral term.
  • Tension is a felt sense. You need to feel a tension. Not just think it. More about this difference below.
  • You are responsible for trying to resolve tensions. This applies to everyone in the organization, and it is one of the basic duties of Holacracy.
  • Tensions are felt by people (”a person’s felt sense”) but processed by roles.


How to sense a tension?

Like said above: you feel tensions, not only think them. It is possible to think something is a problem, but not feel any tension. This happens when it’s a problem we don’t particularly care about.

You can feel a tension somewhere in your body (your gut, maybe?) It can be the smallest amount of unrest, or it can be nights lying awake. That’s why we often use the question “Are you calm, clear and confident” to check if there are still any tensions lingering around.

Making sure tensions are sensed and not merely thought also helps to make sure that we only focus on solving tensions that are actually experienced and not only hypothetical or theoretical improvements. This helps us to avoid premature optimization and perfectionism (a solution can be good enough to solve a tension for now, while being far from perfect).

You probably come across many tensions as you go throughout your (work)day. You can also consciously seek them out by regularly reviewing the purpose and accountabilities of your roles and identifying gaps (tensions!). Or it could be that an action or decision by another colleague raises a tension for one of your roles. Or maybe you expect something of another role but it is not being done?

Protip: not all tensions need to be processed and solved immediately. Sometimes you might need to sit with them a bit, or you don’t have time right now to process them. It is a good habit to record your tensions so you can deal with them later. You can do this any way you want, but GlassFrog actually has a nifty feature for it! Read more about that here.

It is important that you take your tensions seriously. We all bring unique perspectives to this organization and that means we are all unique sensors for tensions. It does not matter if others don’t share your tension. They don’t need to. In more traditional, hierarchical organizations we are often taught to just ‘suck it up’ because there aren’t that many ways to solve our tensions, meaning we miss out on important opportunities for working towards our purpose and ways to get that calm, clarity and confidence.

Read (or watch!) more about why you should take your tensions seriously:

How to process your tensions?

There are many ways to solve a tension, and the best way to do that depends a lot on what kind of tension you’re dealing with. So let’s untangle your tension first!

Is it a people tension or a role tension?

Holacracy as an operating system for organizations is all about roles and explicitly doesn’t concern itself with people things. But of course it’s people doing the work in those roles and with each other, and where people get together interpersonal tensions arise. These are tensions about how we work together (not what we can expect from each other in our roles, that would be for governance). How we behave and talk to each other. For example: you’re annoyed that a colleague didn’t show up for a meeting you planned, or someone keeps interrupting you during meetings.

Protip: it can be helpful to enlist the help of a trusted colleague to help you untangle your tensions. Some outsider perspective can offer insight on what’s going on.

In case of personal tensions

Holacracy itself doesn’t really provide you with good pathways to solve these types of people tensions, but of course they are very important to solve. The skills you learned during the Connected Workshop can help here! Working agreements can also help to codify this-is-how-we-work-together rules from person to person or person to role (but not role to role).

There is also a kind of personal tension that is not interpersonal, but between you (as a person, as a colleague) and the organization. For example about the salary you receive, or the hours in your contract. You cannot sense these tensions from a particular role, but they are important to you as a person. You can raise them to the appropriate role in the organization.

Read more:

In case of role tensions (even if it is not your role)

Read on! The steps below are summarized in a nifty flowchart as well 👇

Scenario 1: I have a tension from one of my roles and I need another role to solve it - how? (Real life)

  • How to find the right role to help you: pick one of the tensions you have at the moment and find out what role you need
    • Pick one of your tensions from block 2 and find the role(s) you think might help you in GlassFrog (individual exercise)
  • Formulate a request to that role: What do you need? How do you create a good request? (next actions vs. projects, formulate outcome)
    • Reflect on what you need (next action or project? information? etc), identify it, and phrase a request (individual exercise)
  • How to get clarity on what you can expect? When is it done? How do you get updates? What can you ask? (theory)
  • You get a “no” as an answer: what can you do?
    • Exercise where you discuss possible scenarios in a group


The website link which i need for an invoice isn’t working

From my hiring role would i like to give a new new colleague access to slack.

Form my role as … i would like to share this message on our socials, can I just post it?

Scenario 2: A colleague in another role has a tension and needs me (one of my roles) to solve it - how? (Real life)

  • How do I decide if this is indeed my role? If yes then…. If no then….
    • Work in pairs and see what requests you can make from each others’ roles and whether they would be accepted
  • How can I help that colleague to get what they need?
    • ???
  • How do I manage the influx of requests? Tracking work & prioritization
    • Reflect on your own to-do system & how to get started with the basics. Share your system with another colleague
    • How to prioritize?

Processing role tensions

Text highlighted in green indicates one of the four pathways for processing tensions that you can find on the tactical meeting cards.


Does one of your roles care?

Do you feel the tension from one of your roles? And you know what you need to solve your tension? Then DO IT! Take a next action, or create a project. Do the work.

The beauty of Holacracy is that you don’t need anyone’s permission to solve tensions you sense in your own roles (unless there is something defined in governance that limits this authority, for example when you’d have to spend large amounts of money).

Read more:

Sometimes all that’s needed to solve a tension is information. For example, you’re not sure what our plans for internationalization are and which countries we want to expand to next, but you know that there is a role that has this information. Just ask them! Or maybe you need someone else to know something? In that case you can share information (”I am deprioritizing the work I do in role A in favor of the work I do in role B”).

Does another role care?

If what you need to solve your tension concerns another role, then HAND IT OVER. You can request other roles to take a next action or create a project if it serves their role and accountabilities. If you need to get something done, ask for it!

Read more:

It might be that you don’t really know what work is needed to solve your tension. That’s fine! You can trust the expertise of the people filling other roles (that’s why they have them) and share your tension without asking for a specific solution. That leaves it up to the expert (the role filler) to come up with the best solution to solve your tension. You can also pitch your ideas to them.

Example: In your role you sense a tension with the amount of registrations for a webinar you’re giving but you don’t really know how to increase it. You share this tension with the Marketing role. They propose to include an announcement for the webinar in the next newsletter they’re sending out. This would help you with your tension!

Does your circle care?

If the tension you sense is not for one of your roles, and there is no other role in your circle that cares, but it is definitely something your circle cares about, TAKE AN INDIVIDUAL INITIATIVE and RECORD A TENSION FOR GOVERNANCE.

Read more:

Does the organization care?

If your circle does not care about your tension you can ask yourself if the organization cares (remember, “cares” in this context means “fulfills the defined purpose or accountabilities”). If yes, there is probably another circle that cares about this. HAND IT OVER. Or record a tension in Governance if you don’t know who cares about this.

Do you personally care?

If neither your roles, your circle, or the organization care about solving your tension but you do, please do it! But leave the organisation out of it.

You don’t actually care?

We’re now all the way at the last step at the flowchart. Your roles don’t care, your circle doesn’t care, the organisation doesn’t care, and you realize that you personally also don’t really care. In that case it’s time to let the tension go.