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The Interview

Leadership skills

Reframing the role of anxiety in leadership 

19 December 2023 • by Alyson Meister in The InterviewPodcast availablePodcast available

Morra Aarons-Mele, author and host of the Anxious Achiever podcast, discusses the strategies to help turn anxiety into a leadership superpower. ...

Anxiety often gets a bad rap. Yet for millennia, it has arguably helped keep us alive. It can also be a huge motivating factor that pushes us to excel. For this reason, many high achievers are known to experience anxiety, explained Morra Aarons-Mele, an award-winning podcaster and author of The Anxious Achiever – Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower. 

“Without anxiety, nothing would get done,” she told me in a recent video interview. “As David Barlow says, we wouldn’t have planted crops; we certainly wouldn’t innovate. We wouldn’t make art, we wouldn’t win medals at the Olympics, we wouldn’t show up and kill it at work.” 

It’s important to note that anxiety exists on a spectrum and to distinguish between “good” anxiety, which is a temporary state that passes, and chronic anxiety that drains our battery, said Aarons-Mele who herself suffers from an anxiety disorder. 

As a leader, it sometimes helps to be anxious. “They’re paid to anticipate worst-case scenarios, to have a plan, to be good in a time of crisis or uncertainty, and to have creative solutions. Anxiety can drive that and help it,” she said. 

Yet there is a tipping point when too much anxiety can be detrimental for the individual and the rest of their team.  The key question to ask is whether your anxiety is serving or draining you.  

“If you are anxious during the pandemic because you are trying to manage a team in a time of huge change, and you can’t look six steps ahead of yourself, I think that’s appropriate,” she said. “If you are waking up every single day, even when things are good, and you are feeling the worry, the swirling brain […] that might be time to get help.” 

Leaders who experience chronic anxiety often unintentionally act it out on their teams. They may try to control things or worry so much about the outcome that they won’t let other people do their job. Anxiety can also be contagious. “We think we need to do things alone. We think we always need to be right. We think we have to be perfect. We always show up expecting to get fired or for the worst piece of news to happen. And not only is this hard for ourselves, it’s really hard for everyone around us.” 

‘Learn to play detective’ 

So, what can we do to make sure our anxiety remains more of a help than a hindrance in our daily lives? 

There are often cognitive, emotional, and physical clues to watch out for. Are you ruminating or overthinking? Are you starting to feel dread? Is your behavior becoming too controlling? It’s also vital to tune into your body. 

“Years ago, I learned to play detective, as Rebecca Harley calls it,” recalled Aarons-Mele. “For me, my tell is my shoulders and jaw. Some people’s tell might be they don’t sleep well, their appetite changes, they feel jumpy, they can’t concentrate. People tell me they often feel a tingling in their body. We may have behavioral changes or we may have emotional changes. So, it’s really important to start to tune in.” 

team meeting
“Organizations need to provide managers with training to build skills to emotionally support their team members”
- Morra Aarons-Mele

It also helps to understand that anxiety is common. On any given day, over a third of Americans are diagnosed with anxiety, said Aarons-Mele, while the World Health Organization has classified it as the most common mental health disorder globally.  

There are a lot of tools that people can use to help manage their anxiety, ranging from cognitive behavioral therapy to mindfulness and breathwork to help relax and calm the nervous system. 

Spending our days staring at screens or scrolling on our devices has been shown to impact our breathing, said Aarons-Mele. Taking a break to practice a few minutes of intentional deep breathing, to tune into your pulse and your heartbeat, can help you come back to yourself. 

Digital drivers of anxiety 

While Aarons-Mele doesn’t think that we can be physically or neurologically more anxious than previous generations, she acknowledges that the digitization of our society that makes it harder for us to disconnect from what is happening in the world is driving our anxiety. 

“Social media was designed to trigger us. That’s the business model. And one of the interesting things that’s happened in work, especially post-pandemic, as most of us have moved to different schedules, we’re more hybrid. We’re more reliant on digital interfaces like Slack, Teams, email, and text, all of which are designed to keep us in a state of heightened arousal. So of course, we’re more anxious.” 

So, what can leaders do to help manage the anxiety of others? 

First, managers need to reflect on how they experience anxiety. “I think that it’s really important,   even if you don’t consider yourself an anxious person, to get introspective and to really understand your mind, body, and spirit as a leader,” she said.  

For many people, this can be uncomfortable because they weren’t raised in an environment or a culture where they were permitted to feel, while there is often a misconception that we are asking leaders to become therapists. Organizations need to provide managers with training to build skills to emotionally support their team members. This can be as simple as asking whether they feel energized or overwhelmed and what you as a manager can do to support them.  

Talk about the tough stuff 

Aarons-Mele’s work centers around changing our understanding of mental health and success and reducing the shame around the topic of mental illness and anxiety. While leaders often feel they need to be tough to maintain an air of competence, recent research shows that admitting your vulnerabilities can increase employees’ confidence in your abilities. 

Talking openly about your struggles can also be beneficial for your team. Aarons-Mele shared the case of Jimmy Horowitz, a senior executive at NBC Universal, who suffered through clinical depression in silence at work. When the pandemic broke open the mental health floodgates, Horowitz was asked to be the executive sponsor of a mental health task force, without his employer being aware of his mental health struggles. 

The request prompted Horowitz to come clean about his depression. This not only helped others feel more seen, but it also changed Horowitz’s attitude to leadership. Having been raised in the old-school Hollywood world, where employees didn’t go home before their boss, he realized he wanted to encourage his team to live their whole lives. 

Too often, leaders, especially high-achieving perfectionists, end up reaching a crisis point before they seek help, said Aarons-Mele. On the surface, they are swan-like, gliding calmly across the surface, but underneath they are paddling frantically. “They end up in hospital. They think that they are having a heart attack because they’re having panic anxiety that is so intense. They have burnout, and they turn to substances,” she said.  

By changing the narrative around leadership and debunking myths that you need to be invulnerable, Aarons-Mele is working to make sure that people learn to get help before they end up in crisis. 

Authors

Alyson Meister - IMD Professor

Alyson Meister

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD

Alyson Meister is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior and Director of the Future Leaders program at IMD Business School. Specializing in the development of globally oriented, adaptive, and inclusive organizations, she has worked with of executives, teams, and organizations from professional services to industrial goods and technology. She also serves as co-chair of One Mind at Work’s Scientific Advisory Committee, with a focus on advancing mental health in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter: @alymeister.

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