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Small Business Digest


Six Ways to Manage Anxiety, Calm Down Employees and Save the Company

The uncertain economy keeps everyone, even those who work for successful companies, slightly off-balance.

With economists predicting that the US has slipped into a recession, these pressures will grow even more intense.

Also, 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!)

"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, 2008).

"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 the 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 a company: In order to relieve his anxiety, one person unwittingly passes 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, companies can change the organization for the better. That's right. It takes only one person 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 someone wants 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 a person 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 the situation.  Because anxiety feels uncomfortable, people tend to play "Hot Potato" with it: They dilute the pain by passing it on to someone else. When people understand this mechanism, it's possible to figure out where the anxiety originated. A person can draw a circle that represents herself and other circles labeled with the names of those around her. Use arrows to indicate where anxiety is coming from and where it is going. Interestingly, she may find that some of her anxiety is coming from a family member or even a figure from her childhood.  Once the person has mapped the anxiety, she can use the following techniques to help defuse it.
  • Learn to take an "I-position." When people have to solve a problem, it's tempting to worry about how their decision will affect the feelings of other people. But keep in mind that it's impossible to please everyone. Trying to control the reactions of other people is anxiety-driven behavior, and it results in only more anxiety. To take an I-position, a person needs 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 down with a six-second vacation. When a person is in a situation that makes him feel anxious, he must distance himself from it before he can think clearly. If people are in the middle of a meeting, conversation, or other incident that is triggering anxiety, they can try taking a six-second vacation: Inhale for two seconds, sending the air where they need a little help. It can be sent to any part of the body, mind, or spirit, or the 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 the body, starting at the head and moving to the toes. Do NOTHING for two seconds.
  • "Detriangle". A relationship between two people seeks to stabilize itself by pulling in one or more third parties. This process is called "triangling." Suppose a person (let's call him Steve) has a conflict with a coworker (let's call him Mike). Because the two can't reach an agreement, anxiety builds up. Steve decides to draw in a third coworker (let's call her Mary) to get her "on his side" and relieve his anxiety.  He has created a triangle: Steve and Mary against Mike.

Triangles are perfectly natural, but they can sometimes create even more anxiety. The good news is that people can "detriangle" themselves. Here's how: L

  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 people are overfunctioners, they need to realize that they are not responsible for someone else's success or failure. They 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 people are the underfunctioners in the relationship, they must realize that their long-term passive approach serves to maintain the other person's overfunctioning behaviors (micromanaging, controlling, etc.). Get clear on the 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 people make an effort to rise above their own anxiety, they may start a "ripple effect" that transforms the 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."

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