Dear leader: now’s a good time to dial down rather than ratchet up the anxiety levels at work (review of Anxiety at Work)

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.

Review: What Motivates Me – Put Your Passions to Work by Adrian Gostick & Chester Elton

what motivates meThis review first ran in the Nov. 24 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

What Motivates Me: Put Your Passions to Work

By Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton

The CultureWorks Press


The results of my motivators assessment won’t surprise anyone who’s had the pleasure of my company.

According to the assessment, I dislike bureaucracy and red tape. I’m not always a faithful follower of processes and procedures.

Routine work leaves me bored. Being told how to do my job leaves me surly. Sticking with the status quo leaves me frustrated.

When given marching orders, I invariably ask why the work’s important and wonder if there’s a better way to get the job done.

I toss out an inexhaustible and sometimes exhausting volley of unconventional ideas from left field.

In my world, reason trumps empathy.

When given the choice, I’ll work on my own rather than join a team.

And I have my moments when I’m overly controlling and suffering from an acute case of know-it-all-ism syndrome.

So what’s the upside to having people like me on the payroll?

Apparently, we can be the “lifeblood of innovation” in an organization.  We’re driven to constantly put new stuff out into the world. Ease up on the rigid rules, give us the time and space to discover and pursue ideas and odds are good that we’ll hit you some homeruns.

If these characteristics sound familiar, then welcome to the tribe called thinkers. We’re one of five workplace identities defined by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, authors of What Motivates Me: Putting Our Passions to Work and founders of a global training and consulting company that builds high-performance work cultures.

Along with thinkers, you’ll find achievers, builders, caregivers and the reward-driven at work.  Each identity has its own cluster of related motivators. For thinkers, our core motivators are autonomy, creativity, excitement, impact, learning and variety. For achievers, their motivators are challenge, excelling, ownership, pressure and problem solving.

The authors worked with a team of psychologists and behavioral scientists who identified 23 workplace motivators by mining a decade worth of workplace surveys completed by more than 850,000 people.

What’s the value in discovering our personal motivators? “When people’s jobs give them the opportunity to do more of the kinds of things that satisfy their key motivations, they are happier and more engaged in their work,” say Gostick and Elton. “Yet in so many instances, people know they aren’t completely content at work, but they just can’t seem to get clarity about what’s really dissatisfying or what would get them more engaged.”

Beware of playing to your strengths while ignoring your motivators. What you’re great at may not be what motivates and engages you. “Our greatest strengths may not align that well with what we’re motivated by. Many people find themselves going into a line of work more because they’re good at the fundamental skills it requires than because they are really drawn to the nature of the work itself.”

There’s also a big payoff for leaders when they better understand what motivates their team beyond mandatory fun days in the office and year-end bonuses. “One of the best and simplest ways for leaders to help their team members be more successful and accomplish more is to have them understand their motivations and do just a little sculpting of the nature of their jobs or tasks to better match duties with passions. This can uncover subtle changes that can lead to big increases in morale, engagement and results.”

That’s good news for anyone who’s dissatisfied, disengaged and stuck in a rut. You don’t have to quit your job, hit the reset button and start over in a new career. “Many of the happiest people we’ve spoken with didn’t find their bliss down a new path; they made course corrections on the path they were already on,” say Gostick and Elton.

The online motivators assessment takes about 20 minutes to complete. You’ll get a spot-on summary of what turns you on and off at work. The book then highlights the working conditions where you’ll thrive, offers strategies for tweaking your job and flags blind spots and potential conflicts that can derail your career.  What Motivates Me is highly recommended for anyone who’s wrestling with two age-old questions – what is it that motivates me and what can I do about it?