Coping with organisational anxiety
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
I initially wrote this during Covid lockdown, as several of my clients were reporting unusual levels of anxiety in their organisations. I thought then we were going through exceptionally anxiety inducing times. 24 months later, I realise that although the crise-du-jour has taken a new shape, there is still plenty of anxiety to go around. Hence my decision to share this more widely.
This article is a first approach about anxiety in organisations and how to address it. It is the fruit of my experience and thoughts, inspired by how anxiety is considered in Gestalt theory. As such, it is not referenced like my articles usually are. It is also less theoretical. So if you feel that my contention is incomplete and inaccurate, you are probably right, and I want to hear from you!
1. Thought experiment | Two fundamental needs
So anxiety. Let us start with a thought experiment (Which to many will have the vivid colours of memories). Imagine you are onboard of a train, and between two stations, it slows down on the tracks, and then comes to a stop. Instantly you will experience light anxiety, until the familiar voice of the train driver informs us that a defective signal on the tracks is disrupting traffic. Imagine now, that having stopped, nothing happens. 20 minutes pass and still nothing happens, no voice nothing, just silence. Your anxiety will then slowly rise, until some passengers decide to get out of their chairs, look for the controller, and seek an explanation. That is what anxiety does. It is an urge to understand what is happening and take action. When we are anxious, what we need first is information. If left untreated, our need for information will only increase, and anxiety may degenerate in panic.
Anxiety also drives humans to seek contact. In that train where you sat, there was for you no reason to speak to other people, because you were perfectly comfortable in your own bubble reading a book or working on that important email. But facing uncertainty, humans turn to each other to seek information. So, after some time has passed, someone will say “This is really bullshit, what is happening, why aren’t they talking to us?” and a conversation will break out between the passengers.
Anxiety drives people to engage in conversation. Through conversation we may realise that we are all in the same boat, and experience empathy/support from others. Anxiety brings us back to our need to feel part of a shared human experience. We do not necessarily ask from others to solve our problems; we rather need them to simply be there for us. When that is not possible, if no meaningful human connection is possible, we may go to survival mode, and engage the "how do I save my own skin" logic.
2. Definition of anxiety
With that in mind, we can approach a definition of anxiety.
Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.
It manifests itself with a strong desire or concern to do something or for something to happen. Anxiety is different from fear in that fear always has an identified object. We could say that anxiety is like being scared in general, but of nothing specifically…
In a situation generating anxiety two fundamental human needs emerge:
A need for information to dissipate uncertainty,
A need for contact to reconnect with our feelings of shared human experience.
A key word in this definition is uncertainty. When there is uncertainty in a situation, anxiety is the normal healthy response of any human being. It is alerting us that something in our life needs to be clarified, addressed, and maybe that some decisions or adjustments need to be made.
There are times in life when uncertainty peaks: times of crisis.
A crisis (From the Greek verb Krinein, to decide) is a time of intense difficulty or danger and in which a difficult or risky decision must be made. Case in point, 2020 was a year where three momentous crises were affecting our lives at the same time.
Income inequalities and the end of capitalism,
Global warming and climate change,
Collapse of international order, sabre rattling, and democracy erosion.
That was already a poisonous dose of uncertainty… and then came Covid. Instantly, essential tenets of our lives, things we held as 100%-always-true-will-never-change were being questioned (Like : can I go shopping for food?). Now I look back on 2020, and I think... Yeah, covid was bad, but it is not like the situation is way better today. We went from the threat of a global pandemy, to the threat of a nuclear exchange.
We may never know for sure, but I imagine that the amount of uncertainty we experience as mankind is unprecedented in history. The question therefore is not whether people in your organisation are experiencing low or high anxiety, I think we all are. The question is rather : How does it affect your environment and what can you do about it?
4. How anxiety affects the collective experience
As I said, experiencing anxiety is a normal, healthy response of humans to uncertain situations. It rises as the situations extends in time. If the train stays on the track in full silence for 1 hour, people might go straight from anxiety to panic.
So, what is happening there?
Anxiety plays with our imagination. Uncertainty makes us launch our risk management thinking and draw out all the possible scenarios of what could be happening, seeking for responses. The longer the uncertainty the wilder the scenarios become, the more anxious we become, the more doing something, anything really, becomes urgent.
Because anxiety makes us seek human contact, we talk to other passengers, and discuss our doomsday scenarios with them, very quickly negativity contaminates the entire group. During lockdown. some companies experienced strong economic growth. And yet there was plenty of anxiety in the organisation… How could that be?
Anxiety feeds on our imagination, to the point that sometimes, the scenarios we write in our heads and share with our colleagues seem to us more real than the revenue numbers published by management. “I know the numbers are up, but I know, there is something wrong with this place, they’re just saying that to keep us working.”
Because of the negativity and doubt that it injects in the environment, individual anxiety can sometimes snowball into a collective climate of suspicion and undermine the trust-relationship between management and the staff, making it more brittle, fragile. Remember what the guy said in the train ? “THEY are not talking to US!”
When business is good, there is plenty of work to do, no time to brood, and everyone has reasons to be hopeful. But in times of societal crisis, even if your organisation is doing well, the anxiety of individuals will rise inevitably, and may rise above what your default “peace time” organisation is able to cope with. All of this happens independently almost, of its financial well-being and to the detriment of its resilience.
In other terms, the moment to care for employees’ psychological wellbeing is not when things go wrong for them or for the business, but always, all of the time, by addressing the two needs we have seen before.
5. Need for information
When the controller’s voice (finally) echoes on the loudspeaker in a stopped train, we are all instantly more serene. Because someone give us information.
This is called contention. Contention is the act of giving something a container. It materialises boundaries beyond which “it” (the situation) cannot go. To illustrate, when we pour water in a bottle, the bottle gives the water a boundary beyond which it cannot go, and at the same time, it gives it a shape. When things take shape, the uncertainty is diluted.
For example, once Covid was finally declared a pandemic (Which we all knew it was), it was not good news, but paradoxically it gave shape to the situation, and therefore contributed to reduce anxiety. Anxiety can evolve into fear, but fear can be tackled with action plans, because it has an object.
If the controller says that the train will start again in 20 minutes, anxiety will be under control within that 20 minutes envelop, because our waiting time takes the shape of a 20 minutes delay. Information, calling the situation for what it is, gives contours to it and dilutes anxiety.
An anxious staff is like water that is looking for boundaries and shape. The voice of management plays that essential role. Psychologically it has the same effect as a parent hugging their child. A good hug is a very powerful form of contention because it says “I love you” that’s information, and gives shape to the relationship, it’s a parent-child relationship.
For employees, nothing is more nerve-wrecking than management silence. Communicating to staff is hardly a new concept, but it is harder than it seems.
Imagine the train controller getting the on the PA and saying : “Don’t worry everything will be ok”. Would that help? A CEO may be tempted to say, “Don’t worry, everything will be ok”. But if they say this, they are giving neither information nor shape to the situation. People may freak out.
Anxiety is not fear, it comes from uncertainty. It triggers an urge to act or for something to happen. So staff do not need reassurance (Reassurance goes with fear, not anxiety), they need information to continue to manage their life.
1. State the facts very plainly, to the best of your knowledge, with limited interpretation, without sugar-coating or dramatizing. Your staff will be looking for a very down to earth type of comms. There is no shame in saying for example “The situation is not yet clear” or “we do not yet have a satisfying solution”. This may sound like a very un-management thing to say, but if it is the reality, then that is what it is, no point trying to make it look better. In the end, I believe that communicating to employees, even when there is not much to say, is in many respects more important than having perfect answers to the situation…
2. And then and give a name to the situation (It’s a delay, it’s a crisis, it’s a pandemic), to give it shape. When people have words to describe a situation, it takes a shape, their anxiety diminishes.
6. Human shared experience
After talking to everyone, our train controller in the story, then walks the length of the train to personally meet people and advise those who are going to miss their connection on alternative timetables.
And this leads us to the second need: fostering psychological safety.
Now imagine the controller coming across a particularly agitated person. “You don’t realise I absolutely need to get to the airport on time, and right now it looks like I am going to miss my flight!”. The controller has two possibilities:
Number one “Please sir do not speak to me like this, keep your calm, there are plenty of other passengers in your situation, I have done nothing wrong I am just trying to help”.
Now the likely result of this is that the passenger will calm down but feel shame and resentment for having been told off. In the worst case, it will make him even more angry.
Alternatively, the (very well trained) controller could just say “I understand you are angry about the situation”. Now this is usually what gets an angry person to calm down. And that is how psychological safety works: by welcoming what people say and express about the situation, without judging.
One great way to tackle a crisis, then, is to foster in the group a sense that they can say what they feel, or want to say, without fear of being made to feel inadequate or unwelcome.
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines pscyhological safety as:
"The shared belief held by members of a team, that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking."
The first important notion of psychological safety is this one:
Proposing to express ourselves about how a situation is affecting us is in fact a proposition of sharing our vulnerability with others. If you share something personal there is always a risk somebody will judge, and so dispositions must be taken to safeguard that experience. If done wrongly, sharing can lead to people getting hurt.
Edmonson expands by saying that psychological safety is also :
"A sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up".
She wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’
Psychological safety is not only about letting people talk, it is opening dialog and ensuring that all people partaking in it endeavour to not voice judgments about each other. On the long term you can shape an organisation that may be more able to navigate crisis by encouraging employees to openly speak to one another and to management in this way.
On the short term, and in times of crisis, you can for example open talking groups in your staff, across functions and hierarchy, and encourage people at first to simply share with the others how the crisis is affecting them, realise what they are scared of, and what they would need. Interestingly, if management makes room for employees to simply express what is happening with them (without necessarily wanting to solve that for them) and cares that judgment is taken out of the conversation, it is likely that collective solutions to address the crisis at hand will emerge more peacefully, quickly and effectively.
Now a word of caution: that is much harder, and much longer to achieve, than contention. But for the organisations that take that journey the rewards are plenty.
I would like to finish with a very simple proposition. If the management team works to provide contention to the staff, and learn to listen to them, where do they get contention, and support for themselves?
The answer may vary from person to person. It can be their life partner, co-founder or from friends… But sometimes that does not work well enough. That is why coaching exists. Coaching does not exist (Or at least not only) because people have problems. It exists to provide them with support, so that in turn, they too, can support their organisation. And you know what, coaches too get support, from people who are specialising in helping help professionals. Personal or collective support works like a chain. For I cannot give very well or for very long what I myself am not receiving.
Going to seek support is not a reflection on our limitations as a professional. We are all at times, a bit anxious, it is just a sign that we are human.