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Managing Anxiety at Work

Managing anxiety at work requires a good level of emotional intelligence to get beyond denial: to recognize it, understand what causes it and how it affects us.

Anxiety at workAmong the various kinds of anxiety there is performance anxiety, status anxiety and social anxiety.

Performance anxiety means being anxious about whether you can deliver in line with expectations. This includes coping with large workloads without overlooking important details, avoiding silly mistakes and getting work done on time.

Status anxiety means worrying about being respected, wanting to be seen as an important contributor and a sought-after source of advice, maintaining and enhancing career status, achieving financial goals and being seen as credible and competent.

Social anxiety means wanting to be seen as a valued colleague, being trusted, having influence and being close to the right key players.

Performance Anxiety

Getting promoted to higher executive positions is a mixed blessing. It confirms your value and enhances your status but makes you more visible and vulnerable. The higher you are the more that's expected of you. The more important the role, the greater the risk associated with anyone appointed to it.

CEOs get fired quickly if they fail to deliver because the cost of failure is intolerably high at their level. Being so visible, they have nowhere to hide.

However, employees at all levels want to do a good job, not necessarily because they are all highly motivated but also because of the fear of being seen to fail or of committing an avoidable error.

Performance anxiety is also driven by time pressure, not only the demand to get everyday things done quickly but also by our underlying feeling that time is short. We fear not achieving our career and financial goals and ultimately of running out of time altogether before we become obsolete, surplus to requirements or dead.

Naturally, anxiety rises before major events such as a big meeting with the boss, a critical presentation to a key customer or having to make a risky decision.

The popularity of sports metaphors speaks to performance anxiety. We want to be seen as a goal scorer, someone who carries the team rather than as a passenger or, worse, an actual drag on success.

Status Anxiety

The need for status varies widely across individuals. People with strong humility are either happy to defer to others or they see the world in egalitarian terms. However, many of us are programmed by biology and culture to be competitive. We have a bad habit of comparing others negatively with ourselves in order to elevate our status, at least in our own eyes.

Organizations, being hierarchies, fuel competition for scarce roles and status. Most people want to be seen as having "made it." It's small consolation to be told that thousands haven't reached your level if you are frustrated about not being ahead of your immediate competitors.

Our very concept of leadership is connected with status. A leader is the one most dominant person in any group. There can be only one in any given group or subgroup so it's an exclusive club.

Social Anxiety

People vary enormously in terms of how important it is to them to be accepted by others. Some don't care whether others like them so long as they have the power and respect that go with high status. Others want to be liked and accepted as a friendly colleague above all else.

Those with strong social needs need to be in with the right people and are the most "lonely at the top."

However, no one working in a large organization wants to be shunned, distrusted or treated as an outcast. Even the most anti-social executives want admirers, people who will defer to them and be their loyal followers.

Effects of Anxiety

One of the most immediate effects of anxiety is decreased confidence. Worrying about not performing, a loss of status or of being rejected is what anxiety really means in practical terms.

Anxiety also undermines our ability to think clearly and to reason objectively. We are more prone to making mistakes and to overlooking important details when we feel anxious. In such a state, everything is urgent and equally important.

When we're anxious, we're more likely to display impatience or frustration with others, a self-defeating outcome if we have social anxiety as well as performance or status anxiety.

Anxiety can motivate us to work harder and faster but, again, this can be self-defeating if we do things in such a rush that quality suffers or people feel they're being driven into the ground. However, like taking an anxiety-reducing drug, being busy helps us to feel that we're getting somewhere even if, in so doing, we overlook the bigger picture or let ourselves get stuck in fire-fighting mode.

In its more extreme forms, anxiety boils over and we totally lose control of our emotions in public. Such outbursts can hurt our status and social standing because we make ourselves look foolish, unpredictable, unapproachable and hard to trust.

How to Identify Anxiety

When trying to identify anxiety, it's critical to avoid denial. If you're in panic-mode over a tight deadline, you could say that it's due to the unreasonableness of the deadline or some person who delayed you, thus denying the fact that some of what you are doing and feeling is driven by your own anxiety.

It may help keep in mind a piece of ancient Greek wisdom to the effect that nothing can make us feel anything, that we have a measure of choice regarding how we react to situations, difficult though it may be at times.

Here is a checklist to help you identify anxiety in yourself and others. When people behave in any of the following ways, it's likely that they are anxiety-driven:

  • Displaying or feeling an overly strong sense of urgency.
  • Expressing frustration more openly than usual.
  • Being more critical of others or situational factors than normal.
  • Finding it difficult to switch off, relax or sleep.
  • Hounding people to get things done, micro-managing
  • Over reacting to bad news.
  • Losing your sense of humour.
  • Snapping at people.
  • Being reluctant to delegate.
  • Totally losing your temper for any reason.
  • Making snap decisions, being more impulsive than usual.
  • Being overly blame-oriented.
  • Talking faster than usual.
  • Making more mistakes than normal.
  • Forgetting details that you'd usually remember.
  • Not taking time for lunch, generally over working.
  • Constantly thinking about shortage of time.
  • Finding it hard to say 'no' to extra tasks.
  • Hesitating to raise difficult issues or challenge people.
  • Being overly deferential to authority figures.
  • Spending a lot of time venting, letting off steam.
  • Overly delaying matters that are important but not urgent.
  • Constantly fire-fighting.
  • Very often feeling a need to hurry up.
  • Negotiating more aggressively than necessary.

Managing Your Anxiety

Regardless of your workload and other environmental pressures, you can always ask yourself these 2 questions:

  1. How can I manage this situation as calmly as possible?
  2. How can I react less negatively to things I can't change?

Blaming others or lashing out is self-defeating because it solves nothing and can make the situation worse. More importantly, by responding negatively, you are actually disempowering yourself, thus choosing to accept the role of victim. Even if you can't change your situation, in the short-term, you should at least be able to manage how you react to it emotionally.

Other Steps for Managing Anxiety

One of the reasons we feel anxious is our desire to live up to our own expectations, to achieve whatever it is we consider to be success. So, one thing we can do is reassess our self-imposed expectations, values and standards. Are we still trying to please our parents? Should we be setting ourselves different goals? What is really that important?

Another option is to reconsider our basic identity. In highly individualistic cultures, we expect ourselves to stand or fall as individuals. With regard to performance anxiety, as noted above, we want too strongly to be goal scorers.

This is not unreasonable for individual contributors, but managers need to switch their identity somewhat to that of catalyst or facilitator. By fostering greater shared ownership, they can reduce their anxiety.

To see yourself as a catalyst, the key is to rely less on your own thinking and deciding capability and focus more on asking others what they think. This is about being more of a coach and less of a goal scorer.

It's also important to manage your boss's expectations and those of other stakeholders. Anxiety is a contagious disease. If your boss is anxious, it's very difficult for you to avoid catching it. However, it takes real skill, as well as emotional intelligence, to help your boss relax.

You might suggest to your boss: "Let's step back a minute and check the bigger picture." Take time to think strategically, which means investing your scarce resources where you can get the best return. Keep the 80/20 rule in mind to be sure that you focus most of your energy on the 20% of things that deliver 80% of your value.

Use your calendar to schedule time-outs during the day, even if it's just to do a walkabout.

Keep the checklist above handy so you can monitor your own reactions during stressful times. This might help you tone it down when the going gets tough!

See also: Questions for SuccessHow to Engage PeopleConfidence at Work and How to Contribute More in Meetings and other posts under Success at Work.

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