How Courageous Employees And Leaders Can Put Anxiety To Good Use

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

Don’t be surprised if you recognize yourself in the pages of The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears Into Your Leadership Superpower by Morra Aarons-Mele. Most of us are anxious in some way: The Mayo Clinic describes the first two signs of anxietyas “feeling nervous, restless or tense” and “having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom.” And who hasn’t experienced these feelings while making a presentation to a leader two or three levels up, confronting a colleague about inappropriate behavior or firing a team member?

But even if anxiety gives you lots of negative messages about yourself and your situation, you can use it to your advantage. In a recent conversation, Aarons-Mele says that anxiety can be an instructive source of self-awareness that supports excellent scenario building and crisis planning. It can help you identify risks and make plans to mitigate them. “The magic,” she says, comes from “translating what anxiety is trying to tell you. Sometimes you can say, ‘You know what? I’m really, really anxious and worked up and jumpy about this presentation for a reason, so I’m going to make a plan to get it done.’ Or ‘I’m micromanaging someone for a reason. Something about the situation is making me anxious, so I’m going to figure that out and then meet with them and make a clear plan.’”

Living With Anxiety At Work

“A lot of us anxious achievers are motivated by long-held beliefs that are no longer true, are no longer part of our values system,” Aarons-Mele notes. “That’s why I ask people to look at those childhood hurts; I ask them to look at their histories. Because I don’t care how big a leader you are, if you’re still performing for someone else and it’s not truly in line with what you want yourself to be, there’s going to be conflict and anxiety.”

Aarons-Mele acknowledges that it’s often difficult to adopt better approaches for coping with anxiety. That’s because, for anxious people, even small errors or missteps can feel “humiliating, and you have to be willing to pick yourself up again and again when you fail. This is why it’s really hard, ironically, for those of us who are anxious, who might be more perfectionistic, who hold very high standards for ourselves and judge ourselves really harshly.”

Practicing self-compassion may be one of the few effective antidotes to harsh self-judgment. We can treat ourselves as we would a dear friend in similar circumstances—providing reassurances, encouragement and other forms of helpful self-talk. And once we recognize that anxiety is overwhelming us, it can be helpful to link back to our own sense of purpose and what is truly meaningful, Aarons-Mele says.

“I don’t think change is possible unless we tap into what we value. If we’re doing it for ‘should’ reasons, it’s really hard,” she explains. “So what I would tell people is to constantly be aware and ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Really connect it to what you stand for and who you really see your best self as being. That’s what makes the change possible.”

For Leaders, Anxiety Creates Responsibilities And Opportunities

Society often assumes that anxiety (or other mental health conditions) only occurs in weak leaders, so many leaders are hesitant to own up to their anxiety at work. This concern makes it less likely that leaders will do necessary self-examination or be willing to express vulnerability around mental health or other issues. And yet masking and other forms of inauthentic behavior that a leader adopts to “look good” are actually threat responsesthat can have physical effects like tunnel vision and tunneled hearing and also affect memory and other higher-order mental tasks. These impacts can actually prevent leaders from doing their best thinking, supporting their colleagues and staff and making appropriate decisions. Aarons-Mele suggests four straightforward remedies that can benefit all leaders whether or not they suffer from anxiety.

The first remedy is to develop a cadre of trusted advisors or a board of mentors whose job is not to comfort or reassure you, but to provide skills you don’t have; they can give you objective advice in areas where you feel weaker or which typically make you anxious. Of course these individuals should be highly trustworthy and reliable so you can be open with them about the support you need.

A second approach, which has gained popularity in Silicon Valley, is to create a user’s manual that explains to others how best to work with you. This could include things like encouraging people to wait until you’ve had your coffee before asking you for a decision or, more importantly, explaining how you typically like to receive information. For example, you might specify that you prefer emails to calls or texts so that you have time to digest the content and fully prepare yourself before responding; you could also include things like whether it’s okay to “surprise” you in a meeting with new data that you haven’t yet had a chance to review.

The third remedy is to share the story of your mental health journey and how you cope. Aarons-Mele explains: “People without power and status should not be expected to tell their mental health stories, but if you have power and you have a story, if you can tell it, you will be effecting more change than you know.” She suggests that you start by focusing on your resilience rather than on your worst experiences, but once you’re comfortable sharing your vulnerability, that can help draw people toward you and give them the courage to share some of their own struggles and concerns.

The final point is to use your anxiety to help you be more attentive to your team members and colleagues. Anxious leaders often scan the environment for threats; this ability can be shifted to recognizing behavioral and verbal cues that suggest what’s going on with others. Leaders who can sense when their colleagues need attention, have concerns or are exhibiting signs of distress are more likely to behave compassionately toward them and take appropriate action. “What we all want from our leaders is the sense that we matter to them,” Aarons-Mele notes, “and that they’re at least taking the time to try to figure out how we feel, even if that’s uncomfortable.” This kind of attentiveness—coupled with the empathy that comes from a sense of shared vulnerability—helps leaders create a humane environment that will retain and engage employees.

Onward and upward—

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