Decades of scientific research show that stress and anxiety are prevalent problems at work, contributing to deficits in employee morale, well-being and productivity. While anxiety is caused by a range of factors, one pervasive cause is specific to the workplace: incompetent leadership.
Managers and leaders have a direct effect on their employees' stress and anxiety levels. What they say, feel and do hugely influences their team's physical and emotional well-being. And the more senior leaders are, the more people they are likely to influence — positively and negatively.
• Work anxiety: Help is there you just need to know where to look
• 'I didn't understand anxiety': Woman's desperate move to get through work day
• Let's talk about depression at work
• Covid 19 coronavirus: How to deal with anxiety about returning to normality
Yet far too few leaders are aware they have this power. And many are overconfident in their leadership skills, creating a gap between their perceived and actual levels of competence. This explains why even well-meaning bosses may inadvertently contribute to high anxiety levels among their employees and have a limited capacity to correct and improve their behavior: If you think you're leading effectively, what's the point of changing?
If you're a manager or a leader, it's useful to internalize some key psychological lessons about how your behavior affects your team, especially when you're not aware of it. In particular, there are five behavioral patterns that most often increase people's anxiety level. If you can spot them, you can learn how to change them.
As the growing field of algorithmic text mining and natural language processing shows, there's a systematic connection between our moods and the type and frequency of words we choose to express ourselves. Even when you think you're discussing something dispassionately, the way you talk about it and the language you choose will convey your emotional and mental state to others. Leaders in particular can expect the emotional impact of their words to be even stronger when they are written.
Research has shown that to avoid accidentally triggering anxiety through language, one should refrain from using negative words (for example, horrific, shocking and dangerous, as well as euphemisms such as challenging, problematic and undesirable). Even if two leaders are in the same situation and describing the same state of affairs, they will have a different effect on the public if they talk about "hope," "improvements" or "light at the end of the tunnel" as opposed to "death toll," "mortality rate" or "depression."
UNUSUAL OR ERRATIC ACTIONS
We often celebrate spontaneity and unpredictability as critical ingredients of creativity. In reality, however, most people want to eliminate as much uncertainty and unpredictability from their lives as they can, as both tend to trigger anxiety.
If you're a boss, don't introduce an unnecessary layer of complexity to your employees' lives by making them guess what you'll do next. Be reliable, predictable and even boring if necessary. You may be the only predictable factor your employees can count on in a time of great uncertainty.
In simple terms, this means providing a clear structure to your meetings and communications, sharing expectations up front, avoiding last-minute changes and cancellations and, wherever possible, continuing with the same routine you had before the crisis or big change.
Excitable bosses are like a roller coaster — they may be fun for sensation seekers, but they're stressful for almost everyone else. The last thing your employees want during difficult times is to see emotional volatility in their leaders.
Being a leader requires a certain level of competence for dealing with pressure. Especially in a crisis, your stress will only amplify other people's stress. Work hard to manage your impressions, contain your emotions and put on your best poker face in front of your employees.
What might this look like? If you're typically calm and stable, try to remain so as much as possible. The fewer changes your team perceives from your typical patterns of behavior, the less stressed they will be. If your natural style is volatile and reactive, however, you may be better off projecting an aura of calmness and composure, as if you had just taken up meditation. This shift may feel extreme to you personally, but over time it will help you better tame or filter your own anxiety. Once your team begins to notice the change, they may feel less on edge themselves, too.
Actions that have been found to mitigate emotional volatility include a regular practice of mindfulness, frequent exercise, better sleep quality and internalizing feedback from others so you realize when you may be derailing.
We live in a world — especially in the West — that stigmatizes negativity and condemns pessimism. But pessimism is underrated, as it helps leaders detect and prevent potential threats, minimize risks and avoid arrogant and overconfident decisions. That said, during stressful and anxious times, leaders' pessimism is more likely to turn into a liability, demotivating others and pushing their already high anxiety to stressful levels.
This is why, even when you cannot find reasons to project optimism, you should still refrain from displaying outright pessimism. Being able to control it and project calmness and composure will strengthen your colleagues. Remember that leadership is not about you; it's a resource you provide to help others.
IGNORING PEOPLE'S EMOTIONS
Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make during stressful times is ignoring your team's emotions. This often occurs when a leader is hyper-focused on dealing with his own emotions. While you need to understand your anxiety and get it under control, it's also critical to manage how others are perceiving your well-being. If they think you cannot manage yourself, they won't trust you to manage them. The key here is empathy: You'll succeed only if you're focused on the people around you, not on yourself.
In the past two decades, a great deal of research has highlighted the key role that emotional intelligence, or EQ, plays in developing empathy. Leaders with a high EQ are better at understanding and influencing other people's emotions, as well as controlling their own. No one will suddenly wake up with a higher EQ overnight, but people can work on their willingness to understand other people.
During difficult times it's more important to monitor people's affect, mood and stress rather than check on their performance or productivity. Simple ways to achieve this are to have more one-on-one meetings with team members, increase the frequency of your communication, ask open-ended questions that invite people to engage, and show empathy whenever possible.
You'll be less likely to increase anxiety in others if you make a commitment to thinking more deeply about how your actions affect them. If you do things right, you can bring out the best in people even in the worst of times.
Written by: Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
© 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group