I worked for a leader who kept count of all the people he’d fired over the years.
It was a big number. And he’d say it out loud in front of employees.
Why he said it was a mystery. Were we supposed to be impressed? Intimidated? Grateful to still have a job? It left me feeling anxious. My anxiety ratcheted up with every email announcing the sudden departure of yet another co-worker.
And then it happened to a friend. We’d worked together for more than a decade. She’d been doing the work of three people and aced her last performance review. She’d provided outstanding support to a succession of senior executives and was proud and loyal to the organization. People in the office were stunned, sad or mad. I was all three.
No meeting was held the next morning to talk about what had happened. There was no acknowledgement that we were reeling. No reassurances were offered that our jobs were safe. When I saw the leader walk through the office with a big grin and some extra pep in his step, I knew it was time to move on. I wrote the email announcing my pursuit of other opportunities.
“While some leaders believe economic, job and competitive uncertainty and resulting stress will get their people fired up for a challenge, that’s simply not the case for a large portion of the workforce,” write Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, authors of Anxiety at Work.
“With so many employees experiencing heightened degrees of anxiety at work, leaders simply can’t afford to aggravate things further or leave team members on their own to either buck up, opt out or calm down.”
Anxiety can lead to apathy, burnout, self-doubt and imposter syndrome, workplace anger and a pile-up of sick days. We mentally and then physically check out. “Worry, stress and resulting anxiety at work can cause employees to lose focus and withdraw, working at reduced capacity and rebuffing attempts by fellow team members or managers to help.”
So what’s a leader to do? You don’t need to become a therapist, say the authors. Just convey that you genuinely care about the people you have the privilege to lead. Encourage your team to be open about their struggles, lend an ear and take small steps that will add up to less anxiety.
“Within our teams, we can go a long way to relieving tensions, providing support, inspiring enthusiasm and loyalty, and creating a safe place for people to spend their days,” say Gostick and Elton. “Having a healthy workplace is a goal we can all feel good about.”
To achieve that goal, help your team do better at dealing with uncertainty. Practice constant communication transparency so anxiety doesn’t fill your silence. Be direct. Communicate frequently and one-on-one. Make it okay not to have all the answers, loosen your grip, ensure everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them, keep people focused on what’s within their control, have a bias for action and offer constructive feedback.
Gostick and Elton also have strategies to help teams tackle work overload, avoid the anxiety-inducing trap of perfectionism, engage in healthy debate rather than conflict avoidance and build social bonds and a sense of camaraderie.
Leaders also have a key role to play as allies who help marginalized and anxious team members feel valued and accepted. “When managers create cultures where people feel comfortable being themselves, dramatic performance gains can be unlocked as everyone is able to focus all their attention on work.”
I’m fortunate to now work for a leader who’s never publicly or privately boasted about how many people she’s fired. What I hear instead is constant and genuine gratitude that matches to the magnitude of the job well done by her team. And I keep running into people she’s mentored over the years. It’s an equally big, and far more impressive, number.
This review first ran in the May 8th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.