RISMEDIA, March 4, 2008-If you’re a leader, you feel it in your gut: Stress is at an all-time high. No wonder. 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: 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 according to Jeffrey A. Miller, that can be deadly for an organization.“Helping your organization manage excessive, chronic anxiety is your number one job,” asserts Miller, author of The Anxious Organization, 2nd Edition: Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things (Facts on Demand Press, January 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1-8891505-2-9, ISBN-10: 1-8891505-2-5, $19.95). “Why? 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. When the irrational decisions start adding up, the company isn’t long for this world.”
Of course, some anxiety in the workplace is normal and even desirable, points out Miller. It goes back to our primitive survival instincts. All organizations face threats, both internal and external, and anxiety is an instinctive response to any threat to one’s survival. But 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. Here’s how it infects your company: In order to relieve your anxiety, you unwittingly pass it on to a coworker. 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.
“What happens next is rarely pretty,” Miller says. “Perhaps the anxious employees succumb to wildebeest-like group-think and run their company off the proverbial cliff. Or one person is unfairly singled out as a scapegoat. Or employees can’t take the stress any longer and start leaving the company. A very common scenario is one where people are fired to ‘solve the problem,’ which only reappears later with the new employee because the system that caused the problem hasn’t really 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. That’s right. It takes only one person-that could be you!-to break the destructive cycle of anxiety. Miller offers the following suggestions:
• Strive to be a predictable leader. The least stressful companies to work for are those in which the rational system-the officially stated goals, values, policies, procedures, job roles, and so forth-is a fairly accurate description of what actually transpires on the average workday. This means that the rational system and the emotional system are reasonably well aligned. What the leaders of such companies have in common is their predictability. If you want to guess what the leader will do in any given situation, check out the company’s mission statement, current objectives, policy manuals, and reporting structure. The leader’s behavior is consistent with what the rational system of the company would lead you to expect.
When there is a conflict between the rational system of an organization and its emotional system, the latter will usually prevail. Employees tend to disregard the rational system when the emotional system contradicts it. They will, for instance, ignore their written job descriptions if the emotional system rewards them for doing something else, and disregard policies and procedures that conflict with the interpersonal ecology. The emotional system of an organization is simply more compelling than the rational system. People apprehend it with their entire bodies. It’s personal.
• Map the anxiety in your situation. Because anxiety feels uncomfortable, we tend to play “Hot Potato” with it: We dilute the pain by passing it on to someone else. When you understand this mechanism, it’s possible to figure out where your anxiety originated. Draw a circle that represents you and other circles labeled with the names of those around you. Use arrows to indicate where anxiety is coming from and where it is going. Interestingly, you may find that some of your anxiety is coming from a family member or even a figure from your childhood. Once you’ve mapped your anxiety, you can use the following techniques to help you defuse it.
• 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! Trying to control the reactions of other people is anxiety-driven behavior, 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’s true that taking an I-position may temporarily cause anxiety to rise…but in the long run, the entire system will be able to calm down.
• Calm yourself with a six-second vacation. When you are in a situation that makes you feel anxious, you must distance yourself from it before you can think clearly. If you’re in the middle of a meeting, conversation, or other incident that is triggering your anxiety, try taking a six-second vacation:
– Inhale for two seconds, sending the air where you need a little help. It can be sent to any part of your body, mind, or spirit, or you can direct it to a troubling idea, a present worry, a concern, even a recurring theme.
– Exhale for two seconds, releasing all muscle tension in your body, starting at the head and moving to the toes. Think of yourself as a boneless chicken.
– Do NOTHING for two seconds.
• “Detriangle” yourself. Did you know that any relationship between two people seeks to stabilize itself by pulling in one or more third parties? This process is called “triangling.” Suppose you have a conflict with a coworker (let’s call him Mike). Because the two of you can’t reach an agreement, anxiety builds up. You decide to draw in a third coworker (let’s call her Mary) to get her “on your side” and relieve your anxiety. You have created a triangle: you and Mary against Mike.
Triangles are perfectly natural, but they can sometimes create even more anxiety. The good news is that you can “detriangle” yourself. Here’s how:
1. Look for the objective cause of the anxiety that has led the triangle to rise.
2. Take sides with issues, not with people. Take an “I-position” and state it clearly.
3. Maintain an independent one-on-one relationship with each of the other members of the triangle.
• Correct an overfunctioning/underfunctioning relationship. Overfunctioners take over responsibilities that belong to another person. Underfunctioners allow this to happen. It is a reciprocal relationship-neither can exist without the other-and both parties are reacting to anxiety. Needless to say, too much of this type of behavior is unhealthy for both people and for the organization as a whole.
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. You cannot do his job for him, even if he is a subordinate. If he fails, he fails (but he probably won’t). 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 over functioning behaviors (micromanaging, controlling, etc.). Get clear on your responsibilities and take actions that will reverse the overfunctioning/underfunctioning cha-cha.
Of course, the above tips represent only a few of the techniques Miller teaches his clients. 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 never cease to be amazed by the power one person can possess,” says Miller. “Because everyone in an organization is connected, you can’t change your own behavior without changing the entire system. It’s impossible! Sometimes these changes are subtle; sometimes they’re profound. For example, 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-actually requires a tremendous amount of courage,” he adds. “That’s the stuff leaders are made of. And when enough people are able to manage their anxiety and find this kind of courage, well, that’s the formula for a stunningly successful organization.”
10 Questions to Ask: Is your company drowning in an ocean of anxiety?
1. Do people take sides with other people instead of taking stands on issues? Do they form coalitions and/or cliques?
2. Do people assert their territory to the detriment of the organization as a whole? Are feuding, back-stabbing, and turf wars a way of life?
3. Do work groups tend to come to rapid agreement, with very little discussion or dissent?
4. Do particular individuals or departments tend to be blamed consistently for organizational problems?
5. Is there a problem with disruptive employee turnover? Are people constantly quitting due to job stress or dissatisfaction with the organization?
6. When conflicts and problems arise, are people exhorted to show more “team spirit”?
7. Does leadership send out conflicting instructions and mixed messages? Are organizational objectives contradictory or unclear?
8. Do people tend to avoid conflict by avoiding each other altogether? Do they hide out in their offices or cubicles, neglect to return calls, etc.?
9. Is “improved communication” considered the solution to all problems and conflicts rather than making decisions that are based on solid principles?
10. Is high productivity emphasized as the key to organizational well-being? Do you get the feeling that people are overworked?
If your answer to most of these questions was an emphatic yes, you probably are dealing with a level of anxiety that’s too high to be healthy-for your employees or for the company itself.
“Anxiety, like anything else in life, is best in moderation,” says Miller. “A small amount is natural and positive. If there were no anxiety at all, no work would ever get done. But when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction, all sorts of counterproductive things can happen. Not only do employees get burned out, the organization tends to make a lot of bad business decisions that threaten its long-term survival.
“If you work for an overly anxious organization, it may be a good idea to seek a fresh point of view,” he concludes. “Sometimes it only takes one person to recognize the destructive cycle and break out of it. You could end up greatly improving your company’s profitability. In fact, you could end up saving its life.”
About the Author:
Jeffrey A. Miller has worked with countless anxious organizations during his career-and has seen many of them come up with innovative and unexpected solutions to their problems. His myriad experiences have given him a unique perspective on creating healthy workplaces. Through his company, Jeffrey Miller + Associates, he helps businesses attain key goals and objectives by increasing their organizational effectiveness. He has experience as a family therapist, management consultant, and coach to top executives in corporate and not-for-profit settings. For over 20 years, organizations across a wide range of industries and business functions have called on his support and guidance. Mr. Miller has a BA from the University of Texas, a Masters of Social Work from Loyola University of Chicago, and has completed a two-year post-graduate program in human/natural systems theory and intervention. He is certified as a Level III Organizational Engineer. He is active in professional circles, having published a number of articles and led workshops on his key area of interest, improving workplace effectiveness through the application of systems concepts.