Elevated systemic anxiety can have severe effects, and most organizations are at risk. The good news is that it takes only one person to break the cycle and turn the company around.
If you’re a leader, you feel it in your gut: Stress is at an all-time high, and no wonder. The uncertain economy keeps even those who work for successful companies slightly off-balance. Doing more with less has become a way of life: fewer dollars, fewer employees, and what feels like fewer hours in the day (The only thing there seems to be more of is competition). And now that working virtually is de rigueur and globalization has truly taken hold, we must collaborate with people at the proverbial four corners of the Earth. It all adds up to anxiety overload and that can be deadly for an organization.
Helping your organization manage excessive, chronic anxiety is your No. 1 job, because it means ensuring that employees operate on principles rather than emotions. When people stay in low-grade panic mode, they can no longer think clearly, creatively, and flexibly. They make irrational decisions, and when irrational decisions start adding up, the company isn’t long for this world. (See the tip sheet below to find out if you work for an anxious organization.)
Ten Ways to Tell If You Work for an Anxious Organization
Is your company drowning in an ocean of anxiety? Consider the following questions: 1. Do people take sides with other people instead of taking stands on issues? Do they form coalitions or cliques?
Of course, some anxiety in the workplace is normal and even desirable. It goes back to our primitive survival instincts. All organizations face internal and external threats, anxiety is an instinctive response to any threat to one’s survival, and when the natural chronic anxiety in an organization rises to an excessive level, employees become like a herd of stampeding wildebeests. They start operating on “fight or flight” instinct rather than thinking clearly, creatively, and in a flexible manner.
Furthermore, anxiety is contagious. To relieve your anxiety, you unwittingly pass it on to a co-worker. 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. All the while, the underlying cause goes unaddressed.
What happens next is rarely pretty. Perhaps the anxious employees succumb to group-think and run their company off the proverbial cliff. One person is singled out as a scapegoat, or employees can’t take the stress any longer and start leaving the company. People are commonly fired to solve the problem, which only reappears later with the new employee because the system that caused the problem hasn’t changed.
Dismal as this scenario sounds, there is some good news. Rather than accepting the cost of excessive anxiety as a way of life, you can change your organization for the better. It takes only one person—that could be you—to break the destructive cycle of anxiety. Here are my suggestions:
Of course, these tips represent only a few techniques. Because anxiety is a very complex phenomenon, many companies need professional help in identifying its many permutations and sorting out its root causes. But don’t despair. When you make an effort to rise above your own anxiety, you may start a ripple effect that transforms your entire organization.
I’m amazed by the power one person can possess, because everyone in an organization is connected—you can’t change your own behavior without changing the entire system. Sometimes these changes are subtle, sometimes profound. I had one client who learned to manage his own anxiety and as a result averted a strike, saved his company $6 million, and earned a major promotion.
Taking responsibility for yourself—giving up the need to blame or control others—requires tremendous courage, the stuff leaders are made of. When enough people are able to manage their anxiety and find this kind of courage, the formula for a stunningly successful organization is found.