Anxiety and uncertainty are crushing your team's readiness for the future. HR and the leaders who they support can't blame team anxiety entirely on the pandemic, social unrest, and Zoom fatigue. Sure, these factors play a part, but so do leaders and HR systems that are ill-equipped to foster future-readiness.
How bad is the anxiety problem at work? Bad. According to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 4 in 10 U.S. adults had developed symptoms of depression or anxiety by the end of 2020, a sharp increase over the results of a comparable survey conducted in the first half of 2019.
These data suggest that as much as 40% of your workforce could be experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. That's 4-5x the "normal" amount of anxiety at work! According to the CDC, these symptoms could include:
- Lack of interest or pleasure in doing things,
- Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless
- Feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge, and
- Not being able to control or stop worrying.
How leaders are contributing to team anxiety
Anxiety stems, in large part, from fear. It's a response to perceived threats and uncertainty about the future. And we all experience some form of it--especially these days.
Here are some ways that leaders contribute to team anxiety. It's in the subtle ways in which a team culture or climate is created and reinforced by the leader. This could include:
- Setting high standards, but offering low support
- Punishing mistakes or smart risk-taking
- Remaining silent around problems
- Failing to accept others for being different
- Failing to make decisions
- Caring more about tasks and not caring enough about people
- Contributing to a climate of mistrust
- Not providing a sense of hope for the future
- Not showing compassion for others
- Perpetuating a state of instability and unclear expectations
- Constantly changing the "rules of the game."
According to my colleague Amy Edmondson of the Harvard Business School, team anxiety ramps up when leaders fail to create psychological safety. When there is a lack of psychological safety on a team, team members perceive interpersonal or social risk in speaking up, speaking out, telling it like it is, sharing concerns, or sharing new ideas.
As Edmondson explains in her book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, anxiety brought on by high performance standards and low psychological safety is a recipe for stalled learning, innovation and growth. And it's certainly not a recipe for future success.
Anxiety Destroys Team Future-Readiness
Future-ready teams and leaders demonstrate the following characteristics:
- Strategic Foresight
- Learning and Development
- Collaboration, and
Even under the best of circumstances, building a future-ready team is difficult. However, when a team is bogged down by anxiety and fear, their readiness to take on future challenges and bounce back from failures is severely limited.
Anxiety and fear destroy a team's ability to engage in complex thinking, engage in compassionate dialogue and create psychological safety for smart risk-taking.
In fact, anxiety provokes exactly the opposite of what future-readiness requires of teams. Anxiety triggers the fight/flight response. Anxiety provokes fear and resistance to change. It shuts our brains down and narrows our focus. It creates closed-mindedness and a "me" vs. "we" mindset. A culture of fear and anxiety destroys teamwork, hope and a focus on successful futures.
7 Actions HR and Leaders Should Take
Effectively responding to the levels of anxiety and uncertainy that exist in our workplaces takes a unified front between HR and leaders.
Here are a few ways that HR and leaders can partner to manage through anxiety and get ready for the future:
- Set realistic performance expectations.
- Establish a tone at the top about the future, compassion, hope and trust.
- Leverage your EAP programs for employees who need it most.
- Build manager capability in psychological safety and future-readiness.
- Measure employee attitudes around hope for the future, fear, inclusion, risk-taking, confidence in leadership, and well-being.
- Facilitate virtual leadership roundtables around anxiety and how to focus teams on the future.
- Start with yourself. Work through your own fears and uncertainty so that you can be a resource for others. That's leadership!