The Problem of Anxiety and How to Embrace It

Uncertainty and complexity demands that today’s businesses must continually change to remain competitive. That’s a fact. This is at odds with the mindset of the very people who help organisations to be successful, their employees. This is because people naturally crave stability in the form of a stable working environment. Consequently, anxiety in the workplace is on the increase.

As someone who has struggled in the past with anxiety, I am interested in finding out more about:

  • help that’s available
  • the kind of support that is offered
  • what happens to organisations and their staff when anxiety isn’t addressed?

In the first part of this article I look at how as individuals, leaders and practitioners we can embrace anxiety. I flip it on its head and use it as a positive tool. In the second part of this article, I look at how, as consultants, we can help others going through transformation to embrace their own anxieties.

Why is Anxiety a Problem?

Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. It is when we allow it to affect us in a way that limits our interaction with the world that it can become a problem. Most people, if not everyone, experiences anxiety in some shape or form. Often this can happen when faced with public speaking or an interview scenario. However, the level of anxiety felt can vary in strength and length of time. This can be overwhelming and therefore affect our ability to:

  • make the right decisions at the right time
  • maintain productivity
  • be creative
  • think critically

A recent study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience by the University of Pittsburgh, has shown that when rats became anxious the pre-frontal cortex disengages. The pre-frontal cortex is the region of the brain that is responsible for executive functions like:

  • decision making
  • long term planning
  • calculating risk and reward

“Anxiety and stress causes one part of the brain to close down: It is the front part of the brain …responsible for the human capacity to integrate new information, make complex decisions and creatively adapt… So at the time that one most needs adaptive integration to find new ways to deal with the stressful event, the part of the brain that is able to undertake this task closes down – people become ineffective under stress because this important part of the brain stops functioning”

IEDP – Developing Leaders “New Science for New Leadership”, 5:36-41

Therefore, we can assume that if we find ourselves in a position of increasing pressure and uncertainty and we aren’t prepared with the toolkit to turn our anxiety into a positive, then we could make a critically wrong decision at the wrong time. This is backed up by a recent publication by Trade Union Congress (TUC) which explains that when people experience high anxiety they are less productive and more likely to take time off. With 17 million sick days reported in 2015 costing the economy £2.4 Billion (a 25% increase from 2014) this is a ticking time bomb that we can’t afford to ignore.

What are our options?

Quite simply you can:

  • Ignore
  • or Embrace

For the last 30 odd years, I have experienced anxiety at various levels of intensity at different points in my life (moving house, starting a new job or facing increasing workload and deadlines etc). In each situation, I had the option to deal with my anxiety and how I approached each decision I needed to make. I had the freedom to accept what was happening and embrace it or more commonly push away my anxiety and ignore what was happening. When choosing the latter, symptoms of anxiety can reveal themselves in other ways. For example; poor decision making, loss of concentration, difficulty with thought processes or even anger. If, however, you choose to recognise that you are experiencing high-levels of anxiety then there is the option to embrace it and make anxiety work for you. This does take more work and practice but it is possible.

I have recently discovered An Bakkes (an executive business coach and facilitator from South Africa) and her model Embracing Anxiety. According to Bakkes, we need to become aware of and stop judgement (of ourselves and others) and believe that we can learn from our own anxiety. After all, uncertainty in life and work isn’t going to go away, at least anytime soon. Over the last 2 months, I have started working with An’s model and as a result, I already feel better able to embrace anxiety in my life.

This model has also been used as a corporate and team change, transformation and improvement tool as well as a gift to people affected by restructures to navigate their transition into a new world. The course has been chosen by Western Cape Government (Department of the Premier) as part of their Leadership Development Programme for 2015 and 2016.


What about the organisation?

“Make no mistake about it, Agile provokes anxiety, especially when one didn’t get to choose the change. I believe this anxiety, and the many unproductive behaviours that result, is one of the main reasons that Agile transformations ‘fail’.”

Lyssa Adkins, Co-Founder Agile Coaching Institute and author Coaching Agile Teams

Many of us are working with teams, management and individuals who are going through large scale organisational change programmes. Many of these people may well be anxious about the changes that are being implemented, for instance worried that their job may be affected and their future uncertain. This often presents itself as a resistance to the change. As coaches, consultants and as human beings who care about others, we may naturally want to help.

As noted above, research carried out by New Science for New Leadership revealed that …

“Anxiety and stress causes one part of the brain to close down”

From a human behaviour perspective, it’s therefore understandable that many Agile transformations don’t always work for both the team and organisation. Why? When organisations don’t place value on trust and collaboration, and fear, control and judgement preside, then there’s little room for collaboration, knowledge sharing and trust. An Bakkes believes that this fear and judgement limits both the team(s)and companies to adopt Agile. And it’s this behaviour that is the biggest limitation. As consultants then, if we learn how judgement and fear play a role in both how we work with teams and how teams respond to changes, we could start to make a difference in helping teams “adopt agile” with less resistance and more acceptance.

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