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How to Get the Best from an Anxious Leader

After working for a number of months with a vice president who’s had a successful career trajectory in a well-regarded firm, I realized that every few years I meet leaders who are noticeably anxious — even among the senior ranks. They’re usually intelligent, knowledgeable, technically proficient people who care about others and want to perform well for their organization’s sake as well as their own.

Unfortunately, though, they may not have had the right development at crucial points in their careers, or else they may have had a bad experience with an early manager.

Recognizing a Leader’s Anxiety

Most anxious managers, like this fellow, are overly reactive. That personal reactivity can lead to bad habits, like excessively defending turf; claiming individual credit for successes; trying to foist blame and responsibility onto others; reluctance to experiment and innovate; and resistance to sharing data, findings, or other resources.

work-with-anxious-leaderAnxious leaders rarely take necessary action on their own. They tend to be indirect about raising problems to avoid triggering upset or defensiveness in others, but then fall back on claiming, “Well, I tried to tell them,” instead of taking any responsibility when problems persist.

In the short run, anxious leaders may get sympathy for looking like victims, but in the long run, their excessive emotionalism and personalization can undercut their credibility — like the boy who cried wolf. And if a company’s culture is predatory, once an anxious leader’s colleagues note his weakness, brokenness, or excessive vulnerability, they may, like sharks, see it as their duty to finish him off.

Coaching an Anxious Leader

For anxious leaders to be successful executives, they have to look reasonably strong to others, even if they still feel anxious, and must learn to shift their emphasis to the business’s needs and goals rather than their own. But telling an anxious leader that it’s not productive for him to focus on himself will only make him worry that you’re dissatisfied with him.

So at the start of a coaching and development process, let him express his over-personalized, emotional reactions, whether they’re triggered by excessive pride or woundedness. He’ll have those reactions anyway, and it’s better if you know what’s going on rather than letting him spread his emotionalism to teammates or colleagues who will respond with their own over-emotionalism or over-reactivity.

Encourage him to use friends outside the organization as sounding boards when he fears that business events are affecting him personally. Suggest new self-talk: “I know I’m having a personal reaction of fear, pride, anxiety, etc. But I don’t have to share all my feelings with my team or management. I can be professional and identify the business issues in this situation, and address them or get help with them.”

Strengthening an Anxious Leader

To support this leader best, don’t just address his symptomatic behavior. Show him how he’s blocking his own growth and success — and how he’ll be taken more seriously, if he manages his perceptions and reactions differently.

Engage him in conversation about whether he truly wants to lead in this environment, and what being a successful leader would look like. Then point out the gaps between that ideal and his current behavior. Note that having feelings of anxiety or self-concern isn’t directly detrimental to the business — it’s only when those feelings cause him to over-react that he creates problems for himself and his team.

Onward and upward,

LK

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