The fear that dare not speak its name

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Written by Liz Hill-Smith on 6 August 2014

I asked one of our favourite clients what I should focus this month’s blog on. “Change and the anxiety it generates” came back as the immediate answer. Now that appears to be a topic that has been well picked over, but I want to explore it through the lens of emotional intelligence, picking up particularly on the feeling of anxiety, what generates it, and how we deal with it as human beings.

As I thought more about it, I realised that anxiety isn’t actually named on the Kubler Ross change curve, the one that charts all the emotions we are likely to go through when experiencing change.  Strange really, as it is most certainly one that leaders feel as they lead change, or are led through change. I also notice that it is rarely publicly admitted to.

Anxiety, a version of fear, is typically sparked by danger or unwelcome events and circumstances.  Leading change in organisations certainly takes us into the unknown and even if that is a positive unknown or unfamiliar, it still takes us out of our comfort zone. The anxiety that gives rise to can manifest itself in our body in a way that we often experience as unpleasant. Like spiky adrenalin coursing through the veins, or fierce tarantulas making whoopee in the stomach. Even low-level hums of this can make sleep or relaxation harder. 

To respond as if our life is under threat, when we are merely stepping out of our comfort zone in organisational life, is a bit of an over-reaction. What happens, is that our calm sensible rational brain gets hijacked by our amygdala, the rapid response action part of the brain that is perfectly designed to protect us from danger. Not surprisingly, that can lead us to believe we are about to be hurt or attacked, so we unintentionally and unconsciously engage in potentially unhelpful behaviours.  Our choices become restricted; our amygdala tapping into past situations that made us feel the same way.  In an automatic way, it kicks those defences and reactions into gear. For example, we’ve seen leaders being driven by their un-named anxiety to start working harder, but not smarter. The sense of being out of control, or the fear of the unknown, actually stops them thinking through long-term solutions in favour of short term fixes. It can mean they revert too easily back to their comfort zone, back to easy fixes that have worked in the past. 

We’ve seen anxious leadership teams making brave steps in a new direction, then when things get a bit messy, losing their nerve and with it any joined up-ness in their thinking. We’ve seen conversations getting closed down too early, and the willingness to explore and entertain diverse perspectives getting lost. We have seen this anxiety lead to micromanaging behaviours, and to over-protective behaviours that lead to silo working and closed communication. Anxious leaders unwittingly transmit their feelings through the layers of management setting everyone on edge, and so the cycles continue.

We have also seen leaders manage anxiety in ways that are bad for their physical health.  Cigarettes, alcohol, food and other behaviours can prove a quick short term salve to these unpleasant feelings.  But they only make things worse in the medium to long term.

So if we can help leaders to step back, acknowledge their anxiety, and accept it for what it is, we have a chance of breaking the cycle. We have been working with leaders in our client teams to help them manage it in more constructive ways. Some of successful strategies we have used for doing this include:

  1. Develop emotional intelligence in your leaders – it can be taught and practiced. The evidence of links between EI and leadership performance are growing stronger all the time. Help leaders get used to working out what is going on for them at an emotional level.
  2. Provide leaders with strategies to manage their emotional intelligence, in particular to cope with feelings of uncertainty and ambiguity.
  3. Help leaders learn to accept being “out of control”, and knowing when and how to accept that some things really are out of our control.
  4. Create chances for leaders to gain feedback and reflect on leadership behaviours.
  5. Encourage people to keep stepping outside their comfort zone to build their ability to stretch beyond it.
  6. Create a culture of regular feedback, dialogue and reflection on these vital leadership issues.

Liz Hill-Smith is a senior consultant at DPA 

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