Elevated systemic anxiety can have severe repercussions for your company, and in the 21st century most organizations are at risk. The good news, says Jeffrey Miller, is that it takes only one person to break the cycle and turn the whole company around.
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. “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.”
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.
- 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. First 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. Then 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. Last, 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.
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. For more information, please visit www.anxiousorg.com