How Leaders Can Lower High Anxiety

bostonAll of us experience anxiety. Even today I experienced it as I was driving through Boston on my way to appointments in Rhode Island. The weather was poor, the volume of traffic significant, and I wanted to be on time. Since being on time is important to me, I knew that the fear of being late would cause me anxiety. So how did I manage it? I left an hour early and arrived with plenty of time to spare.

Let’s look at the most common examples of anxiety in the workplace, how we can face it, and how leaders can use positive reinforcement to lead others through their anxieties.

Fear of Failure

The most common anxiety that affects the workplace is the fear of failure. Most of us want to succeed at work and be valued by our supervisors and teammates. When the possibility of failure enters our minds, each of us copes in different ways. While there are many types of behavior that might emerge, avoidance and procrastination are the most common.

Avoidance is a behavior that attempts to avoid certain feelings or stressors. For example if Tom is a very poor writer, he might do everything in his power to get out of writing a report because the fear of failing to write a correct sentence is severe. Procrastination delays the fear of failure and thus, temporarily, the anxiety.

I recently read an article on our insurance website by Erika Tyner Allen in which she reminded us how these coping mechanisms actually compound the fear of failure anxiety.

  • Because procrastination actually narrows the window of time you will have to complete the task, the quality goes down and the likelihood of failure goes up. Because the likelihood of failure goes up, so does the person’s anxiety.
  • When a person is allowed to avoid, they miss opportunities to grow and reduce their anxiety.
  • Procrastinators often deceive themselves by saying, “I work best under pressure.” Unless you are David Ortiz, you don’t do your best work under pressure. You might do your best “average” work, but you are actually more likely to fail.

Three Ways to Shift Our Minds

Allen suggests we use three methods to get out of the avoidance-procrastination trap. First, discover one pleasure in the task at hand. How could this task help me or someone else? What is one thing I could learn? Allen reminds us that “positive” reasons for doing the task are more effective long-term than negative reasons, e.g. this will get my boss off my back.

Second, we need to believe that we can actually get better at something – we don’t have to be bad at writing reports for the rest of our life. Allen writes that recent studies published in Atlantic Monthly show that when you believe doing a task will improve your weakness, it is a very strong motivator.

Finally, learning to work through tasks that create negative feelings only makes us more comfortable doing it again next time. This trains our minds and reduces our anxiety each time.

Positive Reinforcement by Leaders

When a leader becomes aware of someone’s anxieties or observes avoidance and procrastination, they have an obligation to address it for the benefit of the organization. Allen describes three ways leaders can provide positive reinforcement.

  • Encourage. This is how you provide the discouraged employee hope. It is the hardest part of leadership because you have to know what the anxiety is and what will trigger the person to change their behavior. What do they have the ability to do and what will get them started. “Because my supervisor told me about when she had trouble writing and the course she took and how it made her successful, I have signed-up to take a similar course.”
  • Motivate. Here is where the person is taking-over their own internal motivation. You show them why they should be proud of their own progress. The leader transitions from “I am proud of you” to “Aren’t you proud of yourself?”
  • Recognize. This is when you reward the behavior after it is done successfully. It may include money or praise, especially in front of others.


A final note to leaders

Do you know what causes your anxiety? Do you understand how you cope and what impact your behavior has on the others you lead? I think one of the mistakes leaders make is not recognizing their own anxiety and the impact their coping mechanisms have on those they lead.

Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, wrote,

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

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