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When the environment creates anxiety

By Professor Ben Bryant - August 2009

Excerpt from webcast: Leading in Turbulent Times: Managing Your Motivation (6:02)

Much has been said recently about the economic turbulence in terms of the impact on industries, on companies, on countries. There has not been much on how it affects us as individuals. How does the current situation impact our internal drivers? And importantly, how do we deal with it effectively?

These are not easy times. As budgets are cut, as customers and clients become more selective, our personal security can erode as we start to ask ourselves questions about organizational and individual performance or even survival. When budgets are cut, we might feel some relief that action has been taken, but we are still confronted with the need to produce results – perhaps more so than ever, and if results are not guaranteed, insecurity can return. So for those who survive budget cuts, the underlying insecurity does not go away. When customers turn away, we might ask ourselves what could have done differently, or we might say there is nothing we can do.

One of the things that happens in a downturn of this magnitude is that we are forced to confront uncertainty. Uncertainty means our anxiety and anticipation of threats goes up, so we move to protect ourselves through our defence mechanisms that kick in automatically. While it is a good thing to be more alert to threats and danger, there are two problems that arise. First, our personal defense mechanisms become activated, and second, we become unaware of the negative consequences of excessive defensiveness.

Effective leadership involves awareness and mindfulness of what’s going on. During a downturn, we need to be much more tuned in to our own emotional responses and the emotional responses of others to the anxiety and fear that is created by the uncertainty. To continue to operate at the peak of our ability as leaders, we need to focus on our emotions and listen more carefully to what our thoughts are telling us about our emotions.

So how do we do that? I would like to introduce six areas on which to focus.

Six reflections

1. Mindfulness
One of the dangers of excessive anxiety is losing track of our surroundings. The impact of stress can lead to vicious cycles of mindless action. If we remain mindful, we can be aware through the crisis that we are merely experiencing thoughts and emotions in response to uncertainty and anxiety. Being mindful will allow your brain to take in more information and improve your response to any given situation. Mindfulness helps you better understand your own drivers, better understand what is going on, better understand what is driving people around you, and what is motivating them and yourself.

2. Empathy
When the environment creates anxiety, we, as leaders, need to tune into other people’s emotions more than ever, and to understand what the basic underlying need is. Some people’s emotions will be responses to fairly basic needs that are not being met, such as a desire for more security and structure during a downturn. Others’ emotions may be a response to a need for more recognition because for them, the downturn raises fears that their capabilities are no longer valued. If you fail to realize that emotions are often expressions of needs that are not being met, you may misinterpret emotions, or try to make them feel better without addressing the underlying need. Feel what is really going on for the people around you.

3. Be a container for others!
One of the ways of reducing anxiety is simply to be there for your staff. Be present, and if you work virtually, let them feel your presence. For many of them, this crisis can make them wobble, and they need to know you are there, and that you are grounded, absorbing some of the uncertainty. You don’t need to be a hero, or show how resilient or how strong you are. Just help people feel that their worst fears and fantasies are simply defense mechanisms, and they will not necessarily materialize. Be there physically or virtually, people need to feel your presence.

4. Dialogue is critical
Just as people need to be contained, sometimes people just need to talk to know what is actually going on inside themselves. Most of us need language to structure our thoughts and to understand our emotions. Talking is a mechanism for knowing what we feel, and it helps to be able to share meaning among a group of people. However, expect people to argue more frequently during a downturn. Expect people to lose it with each other more often. It is a normal reaction to uncertainty and stress. Facilitating dialogue is essential to enable people to recognize and accept the tensions that lie deeper down.

5. Action rather than inhibition
Inhibition is one of the common consequences of increased levels of anxiety. As anxiety starts to dominate the situation, inhibition becomes the enemy of action and the enemy of leadership. A downturn means actions may be unpleasant, or misinterpreted, or amplified beyond their original meaning, as actions may affect others negatively. But it is better to take small steps, rather than be immobilized by the uncertainty and anxiety that a downturn can create. It doesn’t matter what it is – but small steps, taking action, helps you and others to focus their energy purposefully.

6. Self- renewal
A downturn could be a good time for asking questions of yourself and others. During a downturn, if we make time, we have an opportunity to confront things that we take for granted. Perhaps this is the last thing that some people want or need, but if well managed, such an opportunity will build resilience during the downturn. So take time out with your team and individuals to question personal and team assumptions. A crisis may force us to give a little bit of power, or a little bit of our identity. What does that mean in the grand scheme of our careers and our identity? Is retaining everything we had in calmer times really so important?

Understanding your internal response to this downturn is an essential part of being an effective leader. Understand yours and understand those around you and you’ll come through these turbulent times better than how you went in.

Professor Ben Bryant is Program Director of Mobilizing People (MP) and teaches on the Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) program.

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