Leading through the pandemic of anxiety

Leadership  Relationships
06 July, 2020

10 suggestions to help you lead more effectively through anxiety

“There is not just one pandemic right now, there are really two concurrent pandemics. The first one is the pandemic of the virus, but the second one that is closely tied to the first is a pandemic of anxiety. I want to be really clear that I am not just using that as a figure of speech. I am actually quite serious about that. I think anxiety is reaching epidemic proportions and I think it has major consequences for how all of us and certainly how leaders of organizations of any size lead.”  Kerry Sulkowicz, noted psychiatrist                                                                                                                                                  

Covid-19 is impacting us far more than any previous crisis. Apart from worries of getting sick at a personal level, we are concerned about the well-being of our families and our team members. The potential social and economic consequences are also nerve-wracking.

Along with the external health crisis, there is an internal crisis brewing inside each of us as we learn how to cope with the unfolding situation. For some of us, this is leading to panic, whereas some of us might be in denial.

Neither of these extremes is healthy. Dr Sulkowicz advocates an adaptive approach, keeping in check your anxiety levels. It is important to both tune into your own anxieties and respond to your team member’s needs.

So, my message this week focuses on how can we lead effectively through this ever-increasing state of anxiety? How can we better manage ourselves, as well our teams?

Crisis-driven anxiety isn’t uncharted territory. Yes, the current pandemic is unprecedented in its global scale. Still, the world has been through many upheavals in the past few decades – from financial crashes and political turbulence, to natural disasters. A lot of research has been done around the role of leadership during such tumultuous periods, yielding valuable lessons that can help us navigate the present storm. Here are 10 suggestions to help you lead more effectively through anxiety:

1. Acknowledge the effects of anxiety

Before taking care of others, it is important to take care of yourself. Recognising your own anxiety is the first step towards having a positive influence on others. How do you, as a leader, respond under pressure? If you’re action-oriented, stress could cause you to become impatient and impulsive. On the other hand, if you have a more analytical style, fear might prevent you from making tough but necessary decisions. Anxiety can also come with physical symptoms, including sweaty palms, increased heart rate and an uncomfortable feeling in your chest or stomach. Once you understand how your anxiety is manifesting, you can start to tackle it.

2. Separate facts from fear

In How Anxiety Traps Us, and How We Can Break Free, published in the Harvard Business Review, Sabina Nawaz recommends the following tool to break out of an anxious thought pattern:

Create a two-column list. On one side list all your fears, uncertainties, and doubts, or FUD. The second column is for verified facts. Being able to compare the two can quell your worries and bring you back to reality.

Another way to stop worry from hijacking your brain is to change tracks consciously. If you feel the symptoms of anxiety coming on, busy yourself with a mathematical or logical task – this engages and reactivates the thinking part of your mind and prevents you from spiralling.

3. Turn to mindfulness

We all know that being mindful can help us stay calm and centred, but how many of us are reaping these benefits? Practising mindfulness doesn’t have to be a lengthy and complicated process; even simple tools can be highly useful. In his HBR piece, Anxiety Is Contagious. Here’s How to Contain It, Jud Brewer outlines a recent finding:

We’ve found that even simple, app-based mindfulness training, which teaches people how to use many in-the-moment exercises, significantly reduces anxiety in healthcare workers.

Simply taking a mindful pause, for example, is very grounding. Breathe deeply or focus on an external object for 10-20 seconds. Another thing you can do is hack into your brain’s reward centre. When you find yourself remaining calm in the middle of an anxious situation, notice how good and empowering it feels. As Brewer explains:

When given a choice, our brains will learn to perform the most rewarding action. Calm is the obvious, more rewarding choice when compared to anxiety. The more you practice it, the more it will become your norm rather than your exception. 

4. Be more tolerant

Our team members are under a lot of pressure, trying to give their best at work, while handling the responsibilities at home. Cut them some slack. Be more tolerant of mistakes. Show more kindness and compassion. And be more open to the suggestions and ideas. Go out of your way to encourage them. Be emotionally present for your team. Communicate frequently and from the heart. Being more engaged with your team will not only help calm them, it will also help reduce your anxiety levels. 

5. Create clarity

With the external environment being chaotic, internal clarity is the need of the hour. Mixed messages and ambiguous expectations send teams further into “fight or flight” mode, impacting performance and morale. Be aligned with your team members on roles, responsibilities and objectives. As far as possible, also share with your team the reasoning behind key policy and strategic moves in the organisation.

6. Trust and delegate

As I mentioned in an earlier message on mission-command leadership, the prevailing uncertainty may drive some leaders into a state of micromanagement. Constantly checking up on the work of your team members only adds to their burden of stress – and your own! Once you have created clarity around goals and expectations, hand over the reins to your team and stop second-guessing them at every step. Trust is a vital component of defusing the stress spiral within a team.

7. Inspire through purpose

Nothing cuts through fear and anxiety better than inspiration. Draw on these organisational touchstones, during meetings and in conversation, to anchor your team and provide a sense of purpose. Connect day-to-day tasks with the bigger picture. Who we are, what we stand for and what we’re working towards – these are essential ingredients to inspire, motivate and engage.

8. Make space for the future

When faced with a loss of control, our natural response is to focus on the things right in front of us. In other words, our brains are currently primed to look at short-term performance rather than long-term productivity. Of course, immediate targets are important – but it’s also crucial to keep the future in mind as we strategise, innovate and move forward. Leaders need to create space for these perspectives within the team. When setting goals or making key choices, start conversations around their future impact. Will these steps enable you to succeed in the longer term, or could they become serious roadblocks in your path? Don’t let anxiety fuel poor decisions that turn into an albatross around your neck.

9. Harness positive language

The use of thoughtful language can help your team shift into an innovation mindset and feel less alone. For example, reinforce the concept of failing well by focusing more on “learnings” and “next steps” – rather than “mistakes” and “faults”.  To strengthen the sense of community and belonging (which is more important right now than ever before), emphasise terms like “we” and “our”, especially when it comes to solving problems.

10. Model work-life effectiveness

One way professional anxiety manifests itself is through working ceaselessly – even when there’s no need to do so. With work from home, the lines between professional and personal have blurred even more. Do you notice your team members frequently working outside of office hours and on weekends? This is unhealthy and, in the long run, unsustainable. You owe it to their team (and yourself!) to model healthy work habits: send emails within work hours, manage your energy by focusing on important tasks and taking breaks, and carve out time for loved ones and personal wellbeing. Share these aspects of your life with your team members and encourage them to do the same.

Let’s face it: anxiety is a lifelong reality for many of us, and it will be higher than usual in the foreseeable future. While we can’t get rid of it, we can definitely learn to manage it better and lead our teams effectively through this period. Remember that this is a defining moment for leaders. How you conduct yourself and rise to the occasion to take care of yourself and your team will be remembered for years to come.


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