O ften leaders complain that their organizations get nothing done: that people are lazy, moody, or have more time for gossip than for work. Sometimes leaders’ criticisms are more specific: they see no creative, forward movement of the group. This state of affairs will soon affect productivity and the bottom line, whatever the product or service may be. Both phenomena have to do with anxiety in the workplace. Possibly the most common instigator of anxiety in an organization is anxiety at the top. When the leadership is in turmoil, and the relationships there are not smooth, anxiety is generated. Anxiety affects the whole organization as long as unresolved relationship issues are present in leadership. Anxiety in individuals. Anxiety in an individual is generated whenever one feels a threat, real or imagined. It is evidenced by rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, thought rumination, worry, tense muscles, fight (anger), or flight (distancing from significant others). Symptoms may appear, such as overeating, over drinking, loss of energy, physical illness, insomnia, or mental/ emotional illness. Anxiety in relationships is manifest by: Conflict —shown by arguing inappropriately, criticizing, or blaming. Distance — avoiding each other, not speak- ing or speaking less than is needed. Over-, under-functioning Reciprocity — people getting bossy, having all the answers, hogging the “airtime,” or the opposite, seeing no alternatives, depending on others unnec- essarily, being depressed or showing other symptoms.
is influential over others, either in ideas or emotionally. If leadership relationships are not working well, the anxiety virus at the top will spill over, before long, to the entire organization. Anxiety is that catching. Fixing the problem. Why would these relationships not work well? The answer is often simple, but it can be difficult for people to implement in the beginning. In my experience of coaching leaders over many years, I find the most common reason is that they don’t spend enough one-on-one time together. Leaders need to carve out time to meet with each other on a regular basis if they are going to attain a smooth working relationship. (Meetings in a group don’t count as one-to-one regular contact.) These meetings are important enough to be scheduled into peoples’ calendars. It doesn’t matter who calls the meeting—the boss or one who reports to that boss, just that they are scheduled and do occur, regularly. Leaders who don’t take time for this important but easily neglected recurring conferencing are risking troubled work relationships. Because of the communicability of anxiety, this omission and its predictable turbulence can affect the well-being of the entire organization. Dr. Roberta Gilbert, in addition to maintaining a private psychiatric practice, is a faculty member of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family and the founder of the Center for the Study of Human Systems, author, and speaker. She works with business leaders, pastors, and therapists, particularly in Bowen family systems theory for individuals, families, and organizations. www.hsystems.org
Triangling — spreading rumors and gossip, talking about someone not present, not taking up issues with the appropriate one. All of these relationship postures tend to be more prevalent when anxiety is higher, and thus are a symptom of it. Anxiety in organizations. When anxiety rises in an organization, absenteeism goes up because of physical, mental or addictive illness, or people just plain feel bad often. Sometimes these places are referred to as “toxic workplaces.” If we can find the source of the anxiety,we will be in a position to deal with it. Commonly, the anxiety in such a chronically anxious place is coming from disturbed relationships at the top.How can disturbed relationships at the top affect the whole workplace? Anxiety spreads. Anxiety is extremely communicable. When one person is anxious, everyone he/she contacts will take it on. If you don’t believe me, think about the last time your spouse came home upset. How long was it before you took it on and now we had two anxious people? If this takes place where many people are in close contact, it doesn’t take long for the anxiety to spread to the whole group like a virus. It can begin with anyone. But leadership has an added punch. Leadership