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Leading Others Through Change When You're Also Feeling Anxious

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

When an organization is going through a big change such as layoffs, a shift in leadership or even a global health crisis, employees at all levels, including executives can begin to feel heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Many begin to worry about job security and future growth opportunities. In addition to those concerns, managers worry about helping their teams feel safe and motivated despite the uncertainty surrounding them. During such times of change, how can you effectively lead others when you are also feeling anxious?

First, what is anxiety? According to the American Psychological Association, “anxiety is an emotion characterized by apprehension and symptoms of tension when we anticipate danger”. In other words, anxiety is our body’s reaction to threat which helps protect us from harm. While this is useful in many situations, anxiety can be damaging if not managed. The longer we stay in an anxious state, the better the chances of it negatively impacting our motivation, creativity and decision-making skills.

As a leader, how can you develop the ability to manage your anxiety and positively lead during times of uncertainty and change?

Understand and accept your emotions and the emotions of others

Take time to pause and clearly identify your feelings about the situation. Harvard Medical School Psychologist and author of Emotional Agility, Susan David, says that by clearly labeling our emotions we have a better understanding of what to do with them and how to move forward. For example, if your company announces a major operational change, you may say you are feeling stressed over the recent announcement. However, after more reflection, you realize that you are actually feeling hurt and sad that you weren’t included in the discussions leading up to this change, which has left you feeling less important. By properly labeling your emotions you give yourself the opportunity to respond more appropriately. Perhaps in this situation, you decide to discuss this with your boss. As a result of the conversation you gain a deeper understanding of the big picture and feel reassured about your role in the company.

David also points to the importance of “showing up” for others by acknowledging and accepting what they have shared instead of trying to change or push their feelings away. Show you care by listening and acknowledging their feelings just as they are. For example, if an employee tells you they are feeling guilty about still having a job after their close colleagues were laid off, avoid the knee-jerk response of, "Don't feel guilty, it's not your fault." Instead consider saying, "Thank you for sharing how you feel. I know this is a difficult time and it is hard to lose teammates you care about." Responding in this way creates a safe space for open and honest communication which builds trust and a better understanding of how to support them during this time.

Identify what you can control

Rather than focusing your energy on trying to manage things you have no control over, which can increase your stress and anxiety, shift your attention to what you can control. For example, after a layoff you may not know the plans for future downsizing, however, you may know which projects are still a priority, providing an opportunity to brainstorm new and innovative ways to approach the work with your team. There may also be an opportunity to assign people more responsibility or help them learn a new skill. Try making a list with two columns, one that says “out of my control” and the other that says, “under my control”. Keep it handy, continue to add to it and reference it when you feel your anxiety rising to help disrupt a potential downward spiral of negative emotions.

Focus on the near term

Author, Morra Aarons-Mele in her HBR article, Leading Through Anxiety, suggests focusing on small and meaningful actions you can take in the near term, as the opposite approach can trigger anxiety and overwhelm. For example, while you can't promise what next year will bring, you can help your team feel safe this week, says Aarons-Mele. Start with communicating the goals or vision for the week and hold office hours to discuss organizational changes and address any questions or concerns. You can also take advantage of one-on-one conversations to mention an employee's strengths and how they matter to the team.

In summary, knowing how to manage your anxious feelings is vital when leading others through change and uncertainty. It helps build a sense of safety and trust in what can feel like a threatening situation. As such, the next time you find yourself feeling anxious pause and ask yourself, “What I am feeling?”, “What is under my control?”, and “What small, meaningful action can I take right now?”.

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