How To Tweak Your Leadership Style When Your Employees Are Feeling Anxious

Even though anxiety can sometimes be frustrating to deal with, it’s actually not all that bad. When people hit the anxious state, at least in the workplace context, it means that they’ve acknowledged that an issue exists and that it needs addressing. They may not be quite ready to take full accountability of the issue, but they are willing to admit that there is an issue.

Contrast this with denial, which is when we hear people say, “there’s no problem and there is nothing that needs addressing; everything’s great,” and you can start to see the upside of anxiety.

Anxiety often gets misdiagnosed because when people are feeling anxiety, they typically say things like, “There’s no way we’ll finish in time,” or “We’ve tried to fix this before and it just didn’t work.” When people are freaking out, they can look oppositional, but oftentimes they’re not so much oppositional as they are scared.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re implementing a new change initiative. When you hear people say things like “This is too much” or “We’re never going to be able to pull this off,” it’s natural to want to say, “This person is resisting, they’re oppositional and trying to derail the whole thing.” But in many cases, the truth is that they’re just feeling and reacting to their anxiety.

It’s important to diagnose the anxiety stage correctly because responding with anger when people are feeling anxious tends to make the situation worse. If your leadership style is too tough, you may need to take some bigger steps to correct the situation.  But for most leaders, making some small leadership style tweaks is usually all that’s required to encourage employees to take the leap from anxiety to accountability.

When anxiety hits, it’s time to borrow some tips from the Diplomatic style of leadership. Diplomats put less emphasis on challenging their employees, focusing instead on putting their people in positions that leverage their strengths in order to achieve success. Diplomats are known for working hard to avoid having their people feel uncomfortable or anxious.

Your first task is to make your people feel less overwhelmed by breaking into bite-size chunks whatever it is that you’re dealing with so your employees can handle it more effectively. This is often as easy as saying, “Let’s just take this a step at a time. We’ll start at step one, and after we do that, then we’ll talk about step two. We don’t have to solve the whole thing right this minute.” Dialing back the anxiety by making the challenge seem less insurmountable will immediately lessen the anxiety your people are feeling.

For many people, ending the day with incomplete tasks or unfinished business creates unproductive “psychic tension” (also called the Zeigarnik or cliff-hanger effect) that results in waking up the next day feeling anxious about everything that didn’t get done the day before. It’s just another way that anxiety keeps people from focusing on what they need to do today to make it a successful day.

Using the four-step Cutting in Half technique, detailed below, with employees turns overwhelming work projects into smaller projects and helps to reduce that anxiety.

  • Step 1: Ask employees: What do you have to accomplish in 6 months (or whatever time frame is appropriate) in order to stay on track of _______ (e.g. a big one-year goal)?
  • Step 2: Next ask: What do you have to accomplish in the next 90 days to reach that 6-month mark
  • Step 3: Next ask: What do you have to accomplish in the next 30 days to reach that 90-day mark
  • Step 4: Finish by asking: What do you need to accomplish today to stay on track of it all and make today a successful day?

Walking employees thorough the Cutting In Half technique, or better yet, teaching them to employ it for themselves when anxiety strikes, is one more way to make overwhelming situations feel safe and manageable.

Encouraging a Do It Right the Second Time culture is another approach great leaders use to reduce employee anxiety. When employees feel apprehensive or scared of “what might happen” if they make a mistake, it can incent even high performers to stay silent about and/or cover up mistakes.

Too many leaders let their own fears of “what might happen” get in the way of instilling a spirit of Do It Right the Second Time. Good employees aren’t going to misuse it as an excuse to goof off or underperform. And if your expectations of accountability are clearly communicated, neither will your lower performers.

Eliminating the fear of making mistakes and turning errors into learning opportunities that inspire root-cause problem solving provides all employees with new and valuable learning opportunities. Plus, it helps ensure the same mistakes don’t happen again. You can implement this right into your organizational performance expectations or code of conduct: “If I am unsure about something, or uncover an unexpected problem, I take immediate action to remedy the situation and to bring it to the attention of others in order to avoid the problem in the future.”

Anxiety can sound terrible, but it’s actually a good indicator that your people are showing signs of ownership. They’re acknowledging there’s an issue and they’re not falling back on blame or excuses. By making some small adjustments to your leadership style, you can quickly move them past “total freak out” mode to “I’ve got it all handled and under control.”




This article was sourced from Forbes.