Managing Leadership Anxiety – Staying Calm for Yourself and Your Team

When COVID-19 began, every conversation with my clients included some element of managing anxiety. While that specific anxiety has lessened, the conundrum of how to help your team when you, yourself are anxious remains.

Anxiety is usually highest when we know that changes will occur, but we lack information about the timing and ultimate outcomes. Thus, anxiety is especially high when we are trying to make the best decisions for our teams or our businesses but lack information. If we need to move forward with only the variables at hand, we know that we have a higher chance of being wrong. Yay.

It’s always hard to risk being wrong when our decisions affect others but especially so when the stakes are high.We try to use our best thinking, our trusted colleagues, and all of our resources….and yet we feel a little out of our league.

Below are some tips to help you manage your own stress as well as the anxiety of your team(s) in times of uncertainty and change.

Strategies to Deal with Your Own Anxiety:

1)   Come back to the fundamentals you know.  What variables are you certain of? Do you have core values that guide you? What is in your control? Use those answers to inform your decisions.

2)   Run the worst-case scenarios, how you and/or your company would survive them, and what you will do next if you don’t survive them.

A lot of people worry that this strategy will depress them, but all of your worst-case scenarios are running in your brain anyway. It’s better to acknowledge their presence and work through them. The point is not to marinate in potentially bad outcomes, but to develop a sense of what you would do 3 months, 6, months or 1 year after they occur.

The upside of this seemingly masochistic exercise is that many people realize that the very worst case scenario is statistically unlikely to occur. I’ve watched people laugh at themselves when they verbalize the worst case scenario that has been plaguing them. This realization helps them get to a more realistic sense of the negatives that might occur. This more realistic scenario still may not be pretty, but it’s definitely less anxiety-provoking.

3)   Confide in stable, positive others. It may be especially helpful to discuss specifics with someone outside of the network or environment.

4)   Course correction is often the name of the game. When we put pressure on ourselves to have one perfect answer, the anxiety becomes unbearable. Rather, assume that you may need to iterate and pivot as events unfold and more information is available.

5) Make bite-size critical decisions when you can. Few of us have enough information at a single point in time to formulate complete plans and execute them. It’s frustrating, but it doesn’t make you deficient as a leader.

5)   Please don’t make promises for outcomes that you can’t guarantee. It will be an additional burden to carry if you find yourself needing to go back on your word.

6) If you are able, step back and look at opportunities for learning and re-defining processes. Sometimes the changes that we are forced into turn into the best ones.

8) Will this situation be affecting you 1 year, 5 years, or 10 years from now? Whatever feels like the worst situation now may not be on your radar a decade from now. I do understand that this technique may not work for severe health diagnoses.

Strategy to Deal with Your Teams’ Anxiety:

1) Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. The common fear that mentioning a difficult situation will make things worse is a myth. It is better to be upfront about whatever change is increasing people’s anxiety.

2) Let the teams know that some processes or decisions may need to be revised. This “heads up” will help them adjust more quickly to the additional changes.

3)  Tell people what you know. Tell them that you will continue to update as you have more information. Both unrealistic optimism and an informational void will oxygenate anxiety.

4)  Drama Queen Dorita. Do your best to create an atmosphere where people who thrive on drama have a limited voice. Better yet, take their need for drama and twist it. Tell them that you need help, and ask if they’d be willing to be an ambassador for the calm and positivity you are trying to spread. The rationale behind this technique is that you are feeding people who thrive on emotion, but you are choosing the emotion you want them to spread to the team.

5) After you’ve provided openings for sharing and support, the focus needs to be on the goals and tasks at hand. People need a mental break from stress-inducing topics. Focusing on business will help both the people and the bottom line.

5)   Come back to the basics. People simply want to feel that they are not alone. No rational person actually expects us to have all of the answers. Trust that your check-ins and caring really do make a difference.