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Organizational Anxiety Starts at the Top

Almost two-thirds of employees believe that they experience job stress, which affects their engagement and productivity. It’s not a right-or-wrong statement; if they believe it is true, then it is. Clearly employees spend a lot of time at work feeling anxious—time that they are not being 100% productive.

This is not to say that an anxiety-free workplace is the goal– or even possible. (If you find yourself in one, prepare your resume. Any such enterprise is not going to survive long in the rough-and-tumble marketplace). A healthy level of anxiety increases the sense of urgency necessary for any organization to succeed. However, many organizations fail to see their internal patterns of automatically transferring anxieties up, down and around the chain of command. Anxiety can also make it more difficult to innovate, to solve intricate problems and to make complex decisions. But reducing anxiety does not come about by coddling and awarding “participation trophies.” Some of the highest performing organizations develop ways of working and leading that take this destructive dynamic into account.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “All the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

What is anxiety? Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an event with an uncertain outcome. What comes next is an emotional response—not thought out, not analyzed. It’s the same process that, under some circumstances, has positive repercussions—like making you swerve to miss a cat in the road, for example. However, the anxiety quick-response instinct also triggers responses that are often counter-productive in an organization.

Anxiety exists in every organization, and is a powerful contributor to the “hidden chemistry” and human dynamics that negatively affect organizational performance—often without notice. The standard organization chart shows the way a system is supposed to work, assuming no emotions, no relationships, and no anxiety. In The Anxious Organization, Jeffrey Miller writes, “…(an org chart) doesn’t tell you any more about how an organization really works than a stuffed owl tells you about a living owl…Organizations run on an incredibly complex system of interactions.” We want to think that each employee is focusing on the work, the tasks and the goals set up on that chart of functions and reporting; unfortunately, it’s just not the case.

What kinds of threats trigger anxiety at work?

  • “How can I avoid getting blamed for this?”
  • “What if I get fired?”
  • “She gets all of the good assignments.”
  • “That’s not fair.”
  • “They think that new employee is better than I am.”

And how might employees respond?

  •  Infighting—digging in an on issue because of perceived “battle lines”
  • Scapegoating—pointing out the blame for our poor performance
  • Disengagement— going through the motions, distracted, hiding out to avoid conflict
  • Absenteeism and turnover—running away from the anxiety
  • Health issues—real physical responses to emotional turmoil

Employee productivity is completely tied to engagement, and team achievement is a function of human dynamics. Neither can succeed if the system is wrought with anxiety and lacks the awareness and leadership tools to ratchet it down.

But what if a leader understood these dynamics—how this emotional system works, and could become skilled at looking at the organization in a different way? He or she would be able to see, think and lead differently, recognizing these invisible forces. It’s analogous to climbing on to a large balcony and observing how the system that is your organization really functions. Could the leader manage his employees’ anxiety?

Simply, no. A leader can only manage his/her own anxiety. Organizational anxiety often starts from the top. Changing other people’s feelings is just not in the job description–or possible. The leader’s anxiety affects the whole system, and that sentiment disseminates throughout the organization, as employees look to the person in charge for guidance, both in direction and in emotion.

Because a department head is inexperienced, the nervous boss starts to do some of this new employee’s job for him. This, in turn, makes the new employee anxious, insecure and possibly angry. He shuts down and is not communicative and forthcoming at a meeting. The boss (and others present) wonders if he made a bad hire.

The only anxiety that a leader needs to attempt to control is his or her own: what causes it, how employees react to it, and how it impacts and “trickles down” to every part of the organization. The leader’s “mood”—anxious or otherwise–affects the whole system.

However, if the bad news is that the leader is an “anxiety carrier”, there is also a silver lining. He/she is also capable of serving as a sort of step down transformer, reducing the nervous voltage in the system by demonstrating calm and composure. If the leader leads in this manner, it, too, can be infectious; employees will work more calmly and more focused.

Former Dallas Cowboys’ Head Coach Tom Landry said, “Leadership is a matter of having people look at you and gain confidence, seeing how you react.” Because an organization is a living system in which everything is connected, one individual can change the entire system by being responsible for his or her own behavior. Non-anxious behavior from the top can ripple throughout the organization, improving engagement and productivity.

 (as published in Business2Business Magazine, March 1, 2015)

Co-author Gerry Gorelick