We worry a lot. We worry about Ebola. We worry about Middle East extremists and the psychic and physical toll they take. We worry about the deepening global economic crisis. Even reality channel TLC was worried when their gawk and mock show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo got a little too real, forcing the network to cancel the money-maker.
We are in the grips of a crisis of faith. WHO admits they got the Ebola crisis wrong. The recent Scottish referendum was, in part, a repudiation of political leadership. The Ukraine crisis and lack of answers let alone justice for the bringing down of Flight MH17 is increasing international tensions. Don’t worry, be happy, indeed. Not now Bobby McFerrin.
Maclean’s magazine characterized this profound and pervasive sense of worry as an epidemic (back in February of this year) rampant in work, our schools and in our homes. PEW Research has found that we worry about different issues, depending on where we live; AIDS in African nations (before the Ebola crisis), economic disparity in Europe and political discord in the United States. But, we all worry.
So what. A little bit of worry is actually good for us. Multiple studies have shown that moderate levels of stress and worry can actually improve our performance at work. A University of Wales study found an interesting correlation between intelligence and worry; smart people who worry produce better results. Financial managers with high anxiety and intelligence levels are better money managers (Maclean’s article). This would suggest that newspapers should be required reading before heading to work.
Here is the problem with worrying. Research also indicates that worry and stress works on a bell curve. In other words, when stress and worry reaches a certain point it begins to impair performance. Too much worry changes us. We lose our thoughtfulness and introspection to this animal-like need to respond or react either offensively or defensively. We become insensitive to others as our caveman instincts for survival kick in, overriding our empathy and judgment skills. The worst case scenario; our lizard brain takes over and turns our worries into fear casting a shadow over our ability to make meaningful decisions. Worry cramps our performance and minimizes our potential. The ripple effect of worry is that it limits the organization’s future possibilities making worry just one more thing to worry about in these troubling times.
People in your organization are worried and these global crises are affecting them right here at home and at work. You can help overcome the worry by thinking about how to keep the lizard brains at bay by addressing genuine concerns with equally authentic actions that lower the levels of stress and worry into a healthier, productive range. Actions need to be a mix of personal, cultural and strategic for best efficacy and each organization will need to create their own, custom inoculation against worry and repressed performance. Here are three ways to get started;
Empathy over sympathy
Empathy implies deep understanding of the individual and his/her situation. It is the leadership equivalent of “walking a mile in their shoes”. In this era of extremely low trust levels for business leaders we need to work harder on specific, meaningful actions and eliminate the empty rhetoric. This will be harder than it seems for some. Psychology studies have shown that people in positions of high power have difficulty empathizing with others in their organization. This means that more senior you become in an organization the harder it is to empathize with the lower ranks. Low trust and low empathy, a deadly mix, can be overcome by a different perspective of the concerns and fears of the people in your organization. Have a third party conduct personal interviews. Have a team meeting facilitated by an outside consultant. Armed with salient concerns and issues leaders can then develop concrete actions that correct the cultural climate and lower worry and stress to acceptable, performance enhancing levels.
Create better risks
There is a significant opportunity cost for organizations that run on fear and worry. Possibilities are lost and potential is misspent. Create better risks in your organization by forming safe havens. Not the safe havens that protect us from injury or harm, this goes without saying, but safe havens in which people feel compelled to follow their passions and to pursue their potential without fear of failure or reprisal. In this age of worry our organizations should be safe havens of respect, where fear is banished and ideas cherished. Celebrate fearlessness. Practice tolerance for new ideas, new ways of thinking and for each other. It will be the thoughtful, empathetic response of a confident team rather than the lizard-brain reaction of a worrisome lot that will be the better risk.
Reframe your future
This Modern Middle Ages of epidemics, economic crises and social discontent may not end for some time. It will end sooner for those organizations that decide not to let the crises and discontent infect their organizations. These are the organizations that inoculate against the Modern Middle Ages by reframing their future. They do so by finding purpose or newfound purpose amidst the crises. They do so by finding new ways of helping their customers by reducing their worry and fear. They do so with new initiatives that galvanize their organizations and by eradicating worries and fear through social initiatives.
These are worrisome times. Let’s not replicate the worries of the world in our organizations by worrying for our people. Let’s worry about them. Let’s eradicate the fear and the worry by creating safe havens of empathy, respect and initiative. If you can do that for your organization you will leave the worries of the Modern Middle Ages behind you.