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Handling Anxiety in the Workplace
May 1, 2008

(May 2008) For many business owners, stress today may be at an all-time high. The economy is uncertain, the cost of gasoline, interest payments, health insurance premiums and other items is up, and collection of accounts receivable are more challenging. What's an owner to do? Not spread anxiety to the workplace. My interview with Jeffrey A. Miller provides some helpful tips on the topic.

Some anxiety is normal, but chronic and pronounced anxiety can be detrimental to your workplace. Jeffrey A. Miller, author of The Anxious Organization, 2nd Edition: Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things, suggests ways that you can minimize this and keep your staff from becoming anxious too.
Recognize how anxiety can hurt your business
Some anxiety from time to time is normal and can't be avoided. But when you and your employees are continually in low-grade panic mode, it prevents you from thinking clearly and creatively. This can lead to poor or irrational decisions that, cumulatively, will undo your company.
The goal is to get people making decisions based on principle. This requires you, as business owner, to take the lead in creating a rational system of operations. Set goals, values, policies, and procedures. Make them official by putting them in writing (e.g., in policy manuals), so everyone knows what's expected of him or her on a daily basis.
Detect the source of anxiety
Find out where it's coming from and where it's going to. Knowing the "anxiety map" enables you to diffuse it.
If you're the source, then take an "I-position," a well thought-through stance you can stay with even if those around you push back. It's important to listen to others, but too much concern about their anxious reactions leads to more anxiety for you. While taking an I-position may increase anxiety in the short run, it will calm your entire organization in the long run.
If the anxiety is starting elsewhere, help diffuse it by stressing facts over feelings. Being calm, clear, and consistent about company policies and procedures will ratchet down anxiety, allowing for greater creativity and better decision making all around.
Detriangle yourself
A relationship between two people tends to seek stability by drawing in a third (called "triangling"). Triangles are natural, but do create anxiety because it's usually two against one. Instead of triangling, maintain separate relationships with each person; don't take sides.
Calm yourself with a six-second vacation
Small business owners generally are loathe to take time off, but anyone can do so for six seconds! Some behavioral steps can diffuse anxiety:
  • Inhale for two seconds.
  • Exhale for two seconds.
  • Do nothing for two seconds.
Test Whether Your Company is Drowning in Anxiety
If answers to the following are mostly yes, then the level of anxiety in your company is too high:
  1. Do people take sides with other people (form coalitions/cliques) instead of taking stands on issues?
  2. Do people assert their territory (feud or backstab) to the detriment of the company as a whole?
  3. Do work groups tend to come to rapid agreements, with little discussion or dissent?
  4. Do particular individuals tend to be blamed consistently for company problems?
  5. Is there a problem with disruptive employee turnover due to job stress or dissatisfaction with the company?
  6. When conflicts arise, are people exhorted to show more team spirit?
  7. Do you and your managers send out mixed messages?
  8. Do people avoid conflict by avoiding each other (hiding in their offices)?
  9. Is "improved communication" considered the solution to all problems rather than basing decisions on principles?
  10. Is high productivity emphasized as key to the company's well-being?


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