What keeps you up at night?
Apart from a late coffee, a close footy match or your daughters first date.
Are you worried you worry too much? Well, don’t worry. It’s a natural thing, maybe even good at times, but a little goes a long way.
Given that nothing good, in the entire history of the world, ever happened without some degree of change, why does change make us worry so much? Why don’t we immediately embrace change with open arms? Our first reaction to change seems to be: worry. We hit the – what if? – button as fast as your foot hits the break in a potential nose to tail traffic accident. As much as worries plague us all from time to time, and as often as they are unbeneficial emotions generated by a reaction to unfounded possible outcomes, worries do have an important role to play. They have their origins steeped in our past, in our evolution. They are part of survival.
Imagine heading out across the plain not worrying about that Sabre Tooth tiger that moved into the district last week and ate your neighbour Roger, right outside his cave.
“Indeed the reaction that underlies worry is the vigilance for potential danger that has no doubt, been essential for survival over the course of evolution. When fear triggers the emotional brain, part of the resulting anxiety fixates attention on the threat at hand, forcing the mind to obsess about how to handle it and ignore anything else for the time being. Worry is, in a sense, a rehearsal of what might go wrong and how to deal with it; the task of worrying is to come up with positive solutions for life’s perils by anticipating dangers before they arise.” (Goleman, Pg 65)
Worrying has worth in that it directs you towards fixing a problem. But when worrying focuses on outcomes and not solutions, and discounts probability, which it invariably does, then worrying loses any skerrick of worth it may have had and simply hinders action.
Times change, but we can always rely on worry to be there for us
Sabre-toothed threats have been replaced by Cyber-toothed threats. But still worrying serves its purpose. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which addresses the needs that motivate us and the order in which we are motivated to get them.Our primary need is based around functionality: can I breathe, do I have enough food? When this is satisfied, our need is to feel secure and safe. Worrying keeps us alert to threats to those needs. Once we feel confident in our more basic needs, the focus of our worry shifts its roots from the primal survival fears to the ego, i.e. our sense of self. This includes our sense of belonging and then our self-esteem. Self-actualisation, the final tier in the hierarchy, should then bring a significant reduction in worrying as we learn to accepts facts, eliminate prejudices, solve problems, become spontaneous and creative.
“Self-actualization, according to Maslow, represents growth of an individual toward fulfillment of the highest needs; those for meaning in life, in particular.” Psychology Today
“Mahatma Gandhi, Viktor Frankl, and Nelson Mandela may serve as examples of people who each personify a reality self-actualization. At risk of his life, Mahatma Gandhi utilized civil disobedience for purposes of freedom, Viktor Frankl was a holocaust survivor who never relinquished his grasp of life’s meaning, and Nelson Mandela maintained an attitude of meaning in life even while he was imprisoned.” Psychology Today
Organisations are a living entity made up of minds, actions, communications, flesh and blood. In a human, the brain leads the body by sending communications via electric impulses, much like emails in an organisation. The better the communication, the better the body or organisation functions. Simple stuff, isn’t it? But imagine a body where the brain senses danger yet fails to engage the legs in flight. Instead of providing a solution it remains in a place where it feels endangered and does nothing to fix the situation. Like people, organisations worry and can grind to a halt, trapped in a cycle of perpetual worry –often triggered by change, which carries the threat of an altered and unknown reality. At a personal level we all have a sense of self, a reality we attach to our self-image, and we will defend it vigorously. We must defend it – all planning and hopes we hold are based on our self-image, and without it our personal development falls out of our control and into chaos. Even if the course you charter is not exactly the one you follow, it provides a comforting anchor in the sand somewhere.
For most of us, change represents a threat to our sense of self. We make this assumption based on personal experiences or those of others around us. We are often more aware of the negative and so quickly assign a negative to the outcome of change regardless of the probability.
In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Goleman tells us that worrying takes on some mystic value that only serves to unconsciously reinforce this often worthless habit. We tend to worry most often about things that have a very low probability of occurring. When these things don’t eventuate, as most often they don’t, we subconsciously attach our miraculous escape from the undesirable outcome to that extensive level of preoccupation.
“As we have seen, worry is the nub of anxiety’s damaging effect on mental performance of all kind. Worry, of course, is in one sense a useful response gone awry- an overly zealous mental preparation for an anticipated threat. But such mental rehearsal is a disastrous cognitive static when it becomes trapped in a stale routine that captures attention, intruding on all other attempts to focus elsewhere.” (Goleman, P83)
As individuals, couples, families or communities seek to fulfil their hierarchy of needs, so does an organisation. In its early stages, an organisation’s goals are simply to survive. To construct the living entity, Frankenstein style, then with a shot from a lightning bolt or a defibrillator, kick start the heart and all the other essential functions. Constantly evolving and developing, eventually an organisation seeks to reach a point of self-actualisation. A point where change is not just accepted, but embraced with anticipation; where facts, not perceptions, shape direction; where innovation fertilises growth and development; where problem solving fuels engagement and where diversity is the uniform.
For Leaders – Dealing with the warts of worry
We understand that worrying in varying degrees is a natural condition for all humans and that if we group 20, 100, or 1000 humans together, we naturally amplify these worries. Individuals and groups fuel the sentiment, founded or otherwise. We must accept we need strong and decisive strategies to counter these worries which as we know can drive an engine to seize. The strategy is simple. Eliminate the actual or the perceived threat to the extent that you can. Clear the trees so the wood becomes visible again. If your organisation is worried then chances are the general populace feels positioned low on the hierarchy of needs. It is highly likely many of your employees are wrestling with a sense of security, which is commonplace in this time of uncertainty and upheaval. A leaders role is to drive the organisation up through the heirachy of needs. Communication is always one of the key pillars of employee engagement. Communication doesn’t fit the old adage “less is more”. In times of uncertainty, open and regular communication is paramount. Little palls of smoke around the office alert us to insecurity sparked by rumours and for most people the belief is that where there’s smoke there’s fire. This worry that something is behind the rumours can serve as the bellows, turning what may have been a simple spot fire into a full blown bushfire that draws all the attention from the main game, all because there wasn’t clear communication about the problems at hand.
If you’re a practising minimalist communicator with a worried organisation or a worried team, it’s time you changed your strategy and quickly. Drip fed information, incomplete information, communication that doesn’t reach a logical conclusion, doesn’t justify actions, doesn’t provide assurances to the extent it can, simply fuels an organisation’s worry and grinds useful activity to a halt. Even if the odds of an undesirable outcome are 1000-1, don’t just assume everyone knows what you know. If you have strategies to mitigate risk, don’t just assume everyone knows what you know. Get the message out there. Facing an unknown risk is easier with a leader who has the confidence of the team.
Worry is a matter of facing the unknown and not liking the look of the outcome. When you communicate clearly and calmly, the situation becomes less uncertain – and having a trusted leader means that even an unpleasant outcome can be managed and dealt with.