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Leading Through High Anxiety Times

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I hate bugs. I mean I really, really hate bugs.

Did I mention that I hate bugs?

Truth be told, I have an almost irrational fear of insects. I don’t know why…maybe because I grew up in a house that had regular forays of wasps in our attic (aka my bedroom).

Luckily, I became a military-grade sniper with Wasp Stopper, but I still can’t even look at a picture of a wasp without an immediate cortisol rush!

My avoidance of “anything insect” is so strong that I even once turned down a great research job because it required me to handle grasshoppers…nice, friendly grasshoppers that never killed anybody (well, at least not that I know of).

So, it makes perfect sense that life had me end up in a place where there is a veritable plethora of insects and other creepy crawlers.

And not just the nice bugs that don’t bother anybody…


Yes, the Tony Sopranos of the creepy crawler world. They’ll take out anybody who gets in their way. And a couple of those buggers figured out a way to get INTO MY HOUSE!

Just typing those words makes my palms sweat.

So, naturally, it makes me think of leadership. No, seriously. Fear and anxiety have a lot to do with what we need to manage as leaders.

There are two unhelpful approaches when managing fear and anxiety…

1. Piling on

I encounter a surprising number of people who pile on to my scorpion anxiety by telling me their worst scorpion horror stories.

My mom was stung 5 times when a scorpion got into her bed while she was sleeping!

Ah geez…did you really have to tell me that? Not helpful.

I see that leaders sometimes do this same kind of anxiety amplification. We have a crisis going on and we feel the need to keep reminding our employees just how bad the situation is. We think we are driving up urgency so that people will take action.

John Kotter (my favorite guru of leading change) devoted at least two chapters in his books as well as another entire book on urgency. I agree with him on many things, including the need for a sense of urgency to drive people out of complacency and into action.

But I also know that we can overdo urgency and inadvertently drive people into fear and anxiety. Fearful and anxious people do not make good decisions. And some folks will run for cover, getting less done when we need their thoughtful action the most.

Even worse, if people feel fearful for their jobs, they may resort to obscuring facts that may actually be critical to solving the crisis.

2. Blowing-off the concern altogether

I’ve lived in Arizona for a million years and I’ve never even seen a scorpion.

When I hear this, I think a few things:

  1. I don’t know if I believe you (you do not look to be a million years old)
  2. You just might be clueless (did you happen to notice that scorpion climbing up your back?)
  3. I still don’t know what to do if/when I encounter a scorpion again

Again, not helpful.

The minimizing approach is well-intentioned, and leaders often do this too. But when our people are facing a real or perceived crisis, blowing them off can make things worse.

Leaders can end up looking unbelievable or clueless, shaking their people’s confidence in them. And by blowing off a real concern, we certainly do not provide actionable help, robbing our employees of any sense of control or hope.

Most importantly, a seemingly insignificant concern might be the seed of a full-blown crisis later.

How can leaders lead their organizations through high anxiety times?

  • Acknowledge the threat. Take it seriously and examine it. The crisis may be real or may just be in people’s heads (which is still very real to them). Show that you fully understand their concerns.
  • Do not pile on. Stay calm. Keep your head. People look to us to lead them through the tough times, not to run around with our hair on fire.
  • Formulate actions to be taken. Make sure your people know the steps to get to resolution. Sometimes the right action is no action, but you will be a lot more credible if your people know that you understand the issues.
  • Keep your eye on the crisis and monitor progress. Get your organization ready to pivot quickly if things change.
  • Provide hope and optimism. The best leaders are both pragmatic and optimistic. Great leaders have a sober, realistic view of the situation AND they are optimistic that it can be resolved successfully.

As for me, I am now ready.

I have become an amateur scorpion expert. I keep slippers near my bed so that I won’t accidentally step on a scorpion in my bare feet. I have my handy little black light to spot them in the middle of the night. We treated our home and have plans to replace the weather stripping on our doors and remove rocks from our yard.

And I am not afraid to go Tony Soprano on one if confronted.

I’ll be OK.

So, what have you done to successfully lead your organization through a high anxiety time? I would love to hear!

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