If you're a leader, you feel it in your gut: Stress is at an all-time high. The uncertain economy keeps everyone, even those who work for successful companies, slightly off-balance. Doing more with less has become a way of life. It all adds up to anxiety overload and, according to Jeffrey A. Miller, that can be deadly for an organization.
“Helping your organization manage excessive, chronic anxiety is your number one job,” says Miller, author of The Anxious Organization: Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things.
Of course, some anxiety in the workplace is normal and desirable, says Miller. But when anxiety in an organization rises to an excessive level, employees become like a herd of stampeding wildebeests. Furthermore, anxiety is contagious.
Here's how it works: To relieve your anxiety, you unwittingly pass it on to a coworker. He or she passes it on to someone else, who passes it on to yet another employee. Before long, the entire organization is trapped in a cycle of anxiety that seems to have no clear starting point. And all the while, the underlying cause goes unaddressed.
Use the following techniques to defuse anxiety.
Learn to take an I-position
When you have to solve a problem, it's tempting to worry about how your decision will affect the feelings of other people. But keep in mind that you'll never please everyone. It's impossible and it results in only more anxiety.
To take an I-position, you need to make a principle-based decision rather than one based on feelings and personalities. It may temporarily cause anxiety to rise, but in the long-run, the entire system will be able to calm down.
Any relationship between two people seeks to stabilize itself by pulling in one or more third parties. This process is called “triangling.” When you have a conflict with a coworker and the two of you can't reach an agreement, anxiety builds. You decide to draw in a third coworker to get him or her “on your side” and relieve your anxiety. You have created a triangle. Triangles are perfectly natural, but they can sometimes create even more anxiety. The good news is that you can detriangle yourself. Here's how:
Look for the objective cause of the anxiety that has led the triangle to arise.
Take sides with issues, not with people. Take an “I-position” and state it clearly.
Maintain an independent one-on-one relationship with each of the other members of the triangle.
Correct out-of-balance relationship
Overfunctioners take over responsibilities that belong to another person. Underfunctioners allow this to happen. It's a reciprocal relationship — neither can exist without the other — and both parties are reacting to anxiety. Fortunately, either party can break the cycle by taking the all-important I-position. If you are an overfunctioner, realize that you are not responsible for someone else's success or failure. On the other hand, if you are the underfunctioner in the relationship, you must realize that your long-term passive approach serves to maintain the other person's overfunctioning behaviors (micromanaging, controlling, etc.). Get clear on your responsibilities and take actions that will reverse the overfunctioning/underfunctioning cha-cha.
When you make an effort to rise above your own anxiety, you may start a “ripple effect” that transforms your entire organization. “I never cease to be amazed by the power one person can possess,” says Miller.