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Leading Off
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Anxiety and fear are universal experiences, and there’s plenty to be fearful and anxious about these days. The pandemic. The swings of the stock market. Changes in how—and where—we work. For leaders, it’s important to be able to parse what are real fears and what are anxieties to get a better handle on mental health and burnout. This week, let’s explore some productive ways to calmly help yourself and those you lead through these trying times.
Photo of Tracy Dennis-Tiwary
Harness your anxiety for good
At face value, anxiety can seem like an inherently negative—and sometimes debilitating—emotion that we should avoid, but that doesn’t have to be the case. In this Author Talks interview, psychology and neuroscience professor Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary explains how, with some mindset shifts, anxiety can go from feeling like a malfunction to serving as a useful tool. “When we listen to anxiety as information that’s energizing us, instead of frightening and depleting us, it helps us be more innovative and creative,” she says. In her book, Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even Though It Feels Bad), she explores how we can work toward embracing anxiety as a human experience instead of pushing it away—which is more likely to cause it to spiral out of control. When we think of anxiety as an adaptive quality of resilience, we are better equipped to navigate it and to let go of anxieties that are not useful, including those that are unreasonable in proportion to the current situation or threat.
That’s the percentage of workplace respondents who reported experiencing anxiety in the past year, according to a 2020 study. Recent numbers from the World Health Organization show that anxiety and depression levels have increased by 25 percent globally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a leader, you can influence your team’s anxiety levels for better or worse. This Harvard Business Review series on managing in an anxious world explores how leaders can effectively face their anxiety and that of their teams in four stages: identifying how your anxiety manifests, taking steps to actively manage it, leading others in times of high anxiety, and building a support system of processes and people to manage it over the long term. As the authors say, “Anxiety is a powerful enemy, so we must make it our partner.”
“Dampening the anxiety that fuels distracting rumors requires explaining decisions in enough detail to convey that you, as a leader, are treating the people affected with nuance and care.”
That’s Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao and Robert Sutton, management experts and professors at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. In times of extreme uncertainty, they say, leaders can help their teams move “from a room called fear to a room called hope” by focusing not only on making the right decisions but also on doing the “emotion work” to frame and implement them in the right way. By exhibiting understanding and extending a feeling of control, leaders can anticipate and manage the psychological responses of others, including anxiety and despair, in difficult times.
Image of Tareq Azim
What lessons can an NFL trainer, gym founder, and creator of the Afghan Women’s Boxing Federation impart about fear? In this Author Talks interview, Tareq Azim describes fear not as something to “get out of our systems” but rather as an empowering tool that we can use to set intention and responsibility in our lives, whether it’s on the field or in the workplace. “Fear is what makes us conscious,” Azim says. “Fear brings nerves. Nerves happen to lead us to being extremely mindful of our capabilities.” Nerves can paralyze people into inaction, but Azim teaches those he coaches to use their nerves—and the heightened level of consciousness they fuel—to thoughtfully prepare and act because “fear is actually designed for us to achieve things.”
Image of a person rock climbing
According to a recent McKinsey survey, 85 percent of executives believe fear holds back innovation efforts at their organizations. Furthermore, 90 percent of companies aren’t doing anything about it. McKinsey research unveils that corporate innovation is stifled primarily by three types of fear: fear of criticism, fear of uncertainty, and fear of negative career impact. Just as leaders focus on systems and initiatives that stimulate idea generation and risk taking, they must also develop a culture that both considers individuals’ emotional experiences at work and allays the fears that will hold their teams back.
Lead by managing anxiety and fear.
— Edited by Dana Sand, an editorial production manager in McKinsey’s Cleveland office
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