Functional in the Face of Anxiety
Postlight’s new CEO reflects on the anxiety response patterns every leader should know.
Every single person employed by a company on planet Earth experiences day-to-day pressure and anxiety: the pressure of tight deadlines, high-stakes deliverables, role-changing transitions, and what teams experience when the org chart undergoes a big overhaul. I’m only a month into my new role here at Postlight, and I’ve spent a good deal of my off-time reflecting on anxiety, leadership, and reacting to stress and change.
Researcher Brené Brown describes two patterns of reaction to day-to-day anxiety: overfunctioning and underfunctioning. In the face of general stress and anxiety, the overfunctioner leaps into action, rushes to give advice, micro-manage, and direct everyone around them, whether or not they have enough facts to inform that direction. Underfunctioners freeze up, collapse into a stress crouch, and in many instances, become the focus of the anxiety themselves. “Did you hear they want to reorg the whole division? Sam is super freaked out! Are they going to be able to run the meeting today?!”
When things get heated, it’s useful to recognize these patterns in yourself and your team so that you can lead with a happy medium and support your teams in the finding the balance — just functional enough.
We’re always thinking about the anxiety our partners experience going through digital transformation. Our clients hire Postlight because they have a problem, and that problem is causing stress and anxiety. Our job is simple: Be the solution.
A lot of the time, the problem at hand is something along the lines of, “Our competitors are taking over our market, and we’re falling behind, but we don’t know how to stop it.” In that scenario, it’s on us to be high-functioners, not overfunctioners. We must quickly understand the situation, gather data, identify the pain points and opportunities, the risks and challenges, survey solutions, give our best advice, put forth a clear plan, and get to work.
Not acting — or underfunctioning — would be failure. Imagine a paramedic stepping back, rubbing their chin, and saying, “Hmm, this seems like a very big problem. Not sure I can handle this. I think someone more qualified should come along, because now that I’m thinking through all the possible outcomes here, it all seems very scary.” Leaders have to stay oriented toward action, especially in the face of anxiety and stress.
Take the temperature down
Then again, I’ve observed a particular kind of leader who takes down the temperature of a room by not reacting right away, in the moment, to stress and anxiety. These calming forces understand something important: that stress and anxiety are contagious.
One person’s anxious flare-up can set a whole team on fire. And without all the information, anxiety can be rooted in catastrophic thinking versus reality. By default, people reflect back on stress and anxiety that comes at them, even in completely different contexts unrelated to the original flare-up. The leader who can douse that flare-up with measured calmness and rational thinking saves everyone a whole lot of heartache.
This leader is the person who has a well-developed “calm practice,” as Brown calls it. They listen first, take in all the information at hand, observe the reactions to it, and take a beat before they react. That measured response to anxiety isn’t underreacting, and it’s not overreacting either — it’s reacting just the right amount.
Strike a balance
Some of my best friends are absolutely fueled and driven by anxiety — always thinking through and preparing for risks and worst-case scenarios, always hedging against catastrophe, always in must-be-doing-something mode. Don’t get me wrong: I admire leaders who think two steps ahead, considering difficult scenarios and contingency plans, and who don’t let themselves get passively pulled along with the tide when they face challenges. But there’s a balance to strike.
When stress and anxiety hits, and your brain goes into fight-or-flight mode, it’s easy to spin up a flurry and fuel the flare-up, or totally shut down. But the leaders I aspire to emulate are calm, measured, and just functional enough. They get the data they need to formulate a response, they take down the temperature in the face of a flare-up, and they inoculate the team against that contagious wave of anxiety so it doesn’t spread.
Gina Trapani (@ginatrapani) is CEO at Postlight. Want to talk about digital change at your org? Get in touch: email@example.com.
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Story published on Jul 28, 2021.