Dealing with anxiety at work

In a corporate setting where execution of strategy is the most critical contributor to success, it’s the passion and desire to overcome challenges and achieve one’s goals that makes the difference. Overcoming anxiety and fear is a large part of the mindset that makes this possible


Steven Gerrard, former captain of the England football team, blamed the ‘culture of fear’ for England’s defeat against Iceland at Euro 2016. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Steven Gerrard, former captain of the England football team, blamed the ‘culture of fear’ for England’s defeat against Iceland at Euro 2016. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Minnows Iceland beat the mighty England at Euro 2016. Steven Gerrard, the erstwhile captain of the England football team, blamed the “culture of fear” for the embarrassing defeat. The players were too engrossed in thinking about the consequences of defeat rather than focusing on winning the game. He said the team essentially lacked a winning culture.

Playing not to lose, rather than playing to win is as much a corporate culture that is based on an overriding sense of anxiety induced by the leadership that in itself is driven by the fear of losing. The internal beliefs and assumptions of the executives make it difficult to break free from the shackles of self-doubt and the pressure of negative thoughts.

Anxiety can be generally defined as any feeling or state where there is inner turmoil that is also accompanied by nervous behaviour, uneasiness, rumination and, in severe cases, somatic complaints. Anxiety is the most important and least understood private emotion in public life—Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey.

Business today is all about change. Volatile global markets, declining consumer loyalty, increasing competition and shareholder expectations are forcing leaders across industries and sectors to reinvent themselves and their companies. Such constant change creates and feeds into leadership anxiety that gets cascaded down the line at all levels. Robert Anderson in Mastering Leadership refers to anxiety in the workplace which is caused largely as a reaction to change. It is driven by a host of factors including fear of failure which produces performance anxiety, loss of power, status and recognition of peers and society in general, and loss of self-esteem or self-worth.

Anxiety in its various forms such as generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, or social anxiety disorder is a behavioural, reactionary, and psychological response to a stimuli or threat that may not be immediately present but may do so in the future. Anxiety has also been described as a feeling of fear, worry, and uneasiness, that is often unfocused and non-generalised as an overreaction to any situation that is only subjectively seen by the individual as disturbing, menacing, or any other negative emotion that may be associated with disapproval.

In their latest book Everyone Culture, Kegan and Lahey identified that each person in an organization is actually working on two jobs. I have witnessed this in many of the organizations whose leaders I coached. The first is what they are hired to do, which their official role and how they are measured in terms of their contribution to business. The second job that executives are involved on a full-time basis is to try and get their bosses, peers, and direct reports to think they are better than they really are. Nobody wants people to know how they really are. All weaknesses and vulnerabilities should be hidden, so others cannot take advantage of it. All impressions have to be properly managed so that it becomes possible to deflect blame and look good to be able to keep rising in the hierarchy.

This is in essence a full-time job, one that contributes significantly to the inner anxiety, and keeps feeding all the doubts and fears.

When I coach CEOs, I frequently find that it is they who are passing on loads of anxiety down the line by way of expressing their own fears of failure and the negative consequences thereafter. People who work for them are usually those with school or college-going children and significant monthly instalment commitments for their home mortgages. They just cannot afford to lose their jobs and they spend loads of energy trying to keep themselves safe and deflect any potential blame down the line or even above as a means of self-preservation.

As I coach anxiety-ridden leaders, I encourage lots of self-reflection. The purpose is to focus on the development of judgment rather than on applying technical skills. Reaching a higher level of self-awareness allows them to respond to similar challenges in different ways than what they had got used to. As Kegan says, you have to let the problem ‘solve you’ rather than the other way round.

What does it tell you about yourself that you found yourself freezing in the situation? Last week the group CEO of a large Danish company was let go by the board. This is a company that has top line revenues equalling at least 10% of the national GDP. For the last two years, the board had been trying to emphasize that there was something rotten in the state of affairs (not in Denmark!) of the company. The CEO was aware yet unable to do what was needed and now it all seems so obvious to anybody looking in. Usually what happens to CEOs is that they get frozen in their beliefs and assumptions that it does not allow them to break out of their complete obsession with the consequences of future failure that prevents them from playing the game in the present.

Anxiety does that to you. It can derail the very competencies that got you to where you are in the first place. You begin to start seeing false evidence as real which is really what fear is. You get trapped by the assumptions and beliefs that you have about yourself and the world, the underlying conflicting commitments you make that in the words of Kegan “makes you drive with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake”.

We have seen it recently in the Brexit vote, where people now feel that maybe they made the wrong decision to leave the EU. Anxiety can make you take the wrong decision even when real evidence that is contrary to your beliefs is staring you in the face. Winning is surely important, but wanting to win is even more so.

In the corporate setting where execution of strategy is the most critical contributor to success, it is the passion and desire to overcome challenges and achieve set goals that makes the difference. Overcoming anxiety and fear is a large part of the mindset that makes this possible.

Pratap Nambiar, is the executive chairman,Thought Perfect Pte Ltd, a Singapore-based organization dedicated to coaching and mentoring CEOs.

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