Good Leaders Manage Anxiety

Dealing with the pressure to keep pace and grow in the midst of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) has become the new norm for many of us at work.

Cooking Fresh EggsA key skill that marks great leaders is the ability to effectively manage this and other pressures and anxieties – in yourself and others.

Here are some signs that you or your colleagues may be driven by excessive fear and anxiety:

  • Everything seems urgent, important and in need of 24/7 responsiveness. You and your associates are working on evenings and weekends – even on tasks that don’t really require this.
  • Leaders are getting too far into the weeds. You or others want more details, updates and involvement than is normal and needed, tending toward micromanaging and overkill. People are unwittingly doing the jobs of those they oversee.
  • People are critiquing and blaming more than innovating. Mistakes are not tolerated so people shy away from taking risks and offering new ideas. Second-guessing decisions is the norm. People are focused more on blaming others for failures than owning their share of responsibility.
  • A short-term focus on producing results overshadows a longer-term perspective on developing others and investing for the future.
  • If you’re honest, underneath all this, people feel a constant fear of being out of control and failing, being found out as not having what it takes to be successful, looking bad, and/or losing their jobs.

When these fear-driven perspectives and behaviors become the norm for you or your organization, the toll is huge – on morale, engagement, retention, efficiency, health, productivity and profitability.

Here are some practical tips at an individual level for not letting fear and anxiety drive you at work:

  1. Unplug – We know we need to regularly disconnect from work in order to give our best at work and in life. Yet many of us don’t do it. Decide on your ‘office hours’ (and your ‘after office hours’) and stick to them; e.g., Some executives I know do not send emails on evenings or weekends – to help themselves unplug, to help train others not to expect them to respond during off-hours and to help set the tone for the rest of the organization. And don’t forget about your friends: the auto out-of-office response and away indicators.
  2. Plug in – Prioritize and schedule energizing non-work activities and protect those times, too. It’s a whole lot easier to say “no” to working unnecessarily in your off-hours when you have decided in advance to say “yes” to going for a run, having dinner with a friend, attending a class, serving a meal at the homeless shelter or some other non-work priority.
  3. Know your tendency under stress – When you are under pressure, does your ‘bias towards action’ style degrade into an ‘impatient, impulsive and insensitive’ approach? If so, then you may need to remind yourself to slow down, consider your options, get input and think through the impact of your decision on others.

On the other hand, if you have a ‘think it through’ style and tend to over-analyze and become a perfectionistic under stress, then you may need to move through your fear of not being right, make a decision and ‘just do it.’ Remember that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing good enough. Time box your decision-making time. Schedule time with others early in the decision-making process to help force you to move more quickly. And remember that sometimes it’s better to fail fast and move on than get stuck in analysis paralysis.

Managing your own anxiety is the first step towards being able to work effectively with someone else who may be leading by fear and stress. In fact, if you’re calm and not letting stress and fear rule you, your attitude and emotions can rub off on others. Mood and emotions are contagious.

One leader I know was on a call with several managers who were on the hook to roll out a new program. There were lots of questions about implementation, approach, rationale, etc. People were nervous, but this leader fielded their questions calmly and confidently – even though he didn’t have all the answers. His boss told me afterwards that the calmness in this leader’s voice was contagious and was possibly even more helpful than the content of his words.

Here are some additional tips to help reduce others’ anxieties:

  1. Notice the anxiety. Noticing the stress and pressure we are under is part of being emotionally intelligent and is the first step towards choosing how to try to manage it. It may be best to empathize and step into it more directly (e.g., “This week has been pretty intense, hasn’t it?”). Or you may try taking a break, switching subjects, or lightening the mood with humor.
  2. Don’t take it personally. The other person’s critiquing, request for additional detail or ‘edge’ may be more about their anxiety than it is about your performance. If you realize this, you may be freed up to empathize and help instead of defending yourself or retaliating.
  3. Consider the person’s style. Recognize whether the stressed-out person tends to have a “bias towards action” or a “think it through” approach. Both styles have their places and their strengths. But both styles have potential pitfalls, too, and people are more likely to fall into these pitfalls under stress. While you may need to flex your approach (e.g., give the “think it through” person more info and detail than you think is needed), you may also be able to nudge them away from the extreme (e.g., help that person stuck in analysis paralysis make a quicker decision and action).

Pressure, stress and anxiety are not going away. What will you do to lead and manage through them?

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps executives and their teams improve their leadership, engagement and ability to collaborate effectively – especially under stress. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.