Fear and Anxiety in the Workplace

“Sit down and be quiet. You are drunk, and this is the edge of the roof.”Blog - Fear and Anxiety in the workplace

—Rumi, 13th Century Sufi Mystic

The national publication, Strategy+Business, published an interview with Meg Wheatley in the Winter 2011 issue. Ms. Wheatley is an author, entrepreneur, and researcher associated with the Berkana Institute—a “U.S.-based not-for-profit organization, dedicated to experimental efforts to build healthy communities around the world, often in highly impoverished areas with many serious challenges…Wheatley’s views on communities, and her experience with innovative management practice, made her a central figure in a wide network of pioneers in organizational learning and change.”

During the interview, conducted by Art Kleiner, he and Wheatley discussed of the current global economy. Wheatley had worked with a number of innovative, creative, prospering organization leaders in the past. She states that the new economy has forced a lot of optimism out of business and forced pessimism back into business processes in its place. Not only is the global economy getting people down, the recent surge of national disasters and political turmoil are also taking their toll on the general morale of the business world. “One of my good friends led the turnaround of his company, one of the world’s top brands. He did it by engaging people: inculcating a strong sense of values, giving people latitude to make decisions and design projects, ensuring that learning was prevalent. Now that he’s retired, that’s all been destroyed. The new leadership is highly restrictive and controlling, using fear as a primary motivator. As a result, the company has been struggling in this current economic climate. And of course it becomes a reinforcing cycle: The worse the financials, the stricter the controls become.

“In most companies, we do not have (and I believe won’t have for the foreseeable future) the money to fund the work that we have to do. Leaders have two choices. One, they can tap the invisible resource of people who become self-motivated when invited to engage together. This approach has well-documented results in higher productivity, innovation, and motivation, but it requires a shift from a fear-based approach to a belief in the capacity of most people to contribute, to be creative, and to be motivated internally. Alternatively, they can continue to slash and burn, tightening controls, and using coercive methods to enforce the cuts. This destroys capacity, yet it is the more common approach these days.” (Kleiner 2011)

Then Kleiner asked Wheatley a very poignant question: Where does the fear and anxiety come from? Does it have to do with uncertainty, fear of failure, losing jobs? Wheatley’s answer is fascinating. She says, “Around the time I began writing Perseverance, I read a book by Laurence Gonzales called Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why: True Stories of Miraculous Endurance and Sudden Death [W.W. Norton, 2003]. Gonzalez says that when people are truly lost in the wilderness, they go through predictable stages. First, they deny they’re lost; they keep doing what they’ve always done but with a greater sense of urgency. Then, when they begin to realize that they’re lost, they search frantically for any shred of evidence that would indicate that they’re not. Next they deteriorate, both physically and mentally. Their frantic search for the familiar, and their inability to recognize that their current maps aren’t working, leads to the ultimate moment when they realize they are close to death. If they don’t acknowledge that they’re lost and that they need new information to construct an accurate read on their situation, they will die.

“When I read this, I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I see in organizations (and in our political leaders).’ Too many leaders fail to realize that the old ways, their mental maps, aren’t giving them the information they need. But instead of acknowledging that, they push on more frantically, desperate to have the old ways work. When human beings work from fear and panic, we lose nearly all of our best reasoning capacities. We can’t see patterns, think about the future, or make moral judgments…I have a lot of sympathy for leaders who think that it’s their job to keep things in control, but when they use fear as a motivator, they shut down people’s brains and, as leaders, create the conditions for everyone to fail.”

The next obvious question is this: What do you do if you feel like you are lost in the wilderness? According to Wheatley, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Admit that you are lost and stop looking around for ways to prove otherwise.
  2. Allow the fog to burn off. Then take a clear look around you. Find sources of information that will help you figure out what to do next.
  3. Don’t worry so much about changing the situation. Do more to change your mind about it.

Too often, leaders are afraid to admit that they have no idea what to do when times get tough as if by doing so, they give up their power and look like fools to their subordinates. In reality, the opposite is true. Wheatley counsels leaders to have the courage to say to their people, “Our problems were caused by complex interactions. I don’t know what to do, but I know we can figure it out together.” When a leader has done this, they have admitted they are lost and thus place them and their team members on the path to finding their new place in the world.

Works Cited

Kleiner, Art. “The Thought Leader Interview: Meg Wheatley.” Strategy+Business, Winter 2011: 80-90.

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About the Author

Josh Nuttall

Josh’s role and experience at CMOE has been supporting the development of curriculum design for a wide variety of leadership topics and organizational issues and challenges.