We’re doing a lot of talking about mental health these days, but that doesn’t make the issues magically disappear. What a great opportunity, then to be joined by Morra Aarons-Mele, an entrepreneur, host of the podcast “The Anxious Achiever,” and author of the book by the same name. She argues that anxiety, when properly harnessed, can become a superpower. We collaborated on responses to the questions during our chat.
From Hiding in the Bathroom to making Anxiety discussable for high-achieving people
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Morra Aarons-Mele’s first book was called Hiding in the Bathroom: How to Get Out There When You’d Rather Stay Home, and addressed the issue of how introverts can engage in networking and (sensible) self-promotion when that isn’t their go-do skill set. She’s now on a mission to get people to understand that anxiety can actually be a superpower if you train yourself to manage it well. More broadly, she’s at the forefront of making mental health issues a discussable phenomenon at work and in your personal life.
What follows are our answers to questions we didn’t get to during our conversation.
Question: What are your experiences about where the fear that many people feel, comes from?
We’ve all had this experience – we’ve finally accomplished a goal or enjoyed a big success, and we think we should be feeling great about it. Instead, we find ourselves unable to enjoy it, overcome with feelings of dread, fear, or other negative emotions. These are often deeply embedded reactions to negative experiences from our past, of which we may not even be consciously aware of.
What is not at all well known is just how pervasive the feeling of anxiety or fearfulness at work is. Morra reports that across the globe, some 284 million people suffer from anxiety, making it the most common mental health ailment, particularly considering that that number is likely an undercount. A major reason that we don’t know more about anxiety and how to manage it is that people fear that exposing their struggles with mental health shows weakness or lack of self-confidence.
In reality, anxiety is part of life. As we joked during the discussion, anxiety comes from that same part of our lizard brains that served us well when major threats to our well-being and even lives were in the form of predators looking for their next lunch! It’s the same deeply embedded condition that causes us, as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic points out, to confuse confidence with competence, often to our own regret. It isn’t a weakness, and it can be managed. Moreover, learning to manage it well brings incredible benefits.
Anxious leaders are forward-looking. Because they are nervous about what lies ahead, they make sure paying attention to it is on their agenda (a critical factor for “Seeing Around Corners”). Anxious leaders often exhibit great empathy and are attuned to the emotions of others. Anxious leaders work hard and prepare. And anxious leaders can do a great job of bringing others with them.
“Vulnerability does not equal weakness” is a recent quote I heard by Brene Brown that our listeners reported loving!
Question: Do you have a go to practice to *realize* anxiety is affecting you? Sometimes I don’t realize that’s what is going on until someone I love asks me how I am doing…
Morra points out that this is a key issue. We experience anxiety when we feel threatened, but at the same time, our brains don’t want us to feel these unpleasant emotions, so we can be unaware that we are experiencing anxiety.
Some ideas to tune in to this are to pay attention to what is going on in your body. You may experience an increased heart rate, nausea, clenching in your muscles and other physical symptoms – your brain thinks you are in danger and reacts to that!
Question: I heard you say that many people are afraid of being shamed. What are your experiences about reasons why some managers want to shame people?
To some extent, shaming others at work is the toxic exercise of power. For more on that, see Jeff Pfeffer’s excellent book on 7 Rules of Power and our fireside chat covering the same themes.
But let’s say we’re not being led by a toxic jerk. One of the ways we act out our anxiety in the workplace is through micro-management. It’s through controlling behaviors. We’re so concerned about bad outcomes happening that we insist on detailing the littlest thing our colleagues are working on, which is itself reflected in their becoming far more subject to burnout at work. We put in gatekeeping, we insist on perfectionism, all things that drive people crazy (and which don’t make a contribution to the permissionless nature of highly effective organizations).
Question: I think I heard you say that we need to be more human. What does it mean to “be more human”?
From one of our listeners: “I can share an example: in a meeting recently, I asked a question that had been answered previously or in a prior meeting. I thanked them for answering again, and acknowledged I recalled it now – and apologized for the repeat, and jokingly said I would probably have it down cold after hearing it TWICE MORE 🙂 – and lots of people laughed. A couple of folks even complimented me for owning my ‘humanity’. This is very relevant to the themes explored in the book Humor, Seriously by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas.
Let’s talk about an “aha” moment we both shared: The importance of absorbing uncertainty
Anxiety at work is normal, and increases in times of uncertainty. So what’s a manager’s role during anxious times? We both had an Aha moment over an example of leadership anxiety Rita shared. When both a manager and employee feel anxious and uncertain, communication is key.
Rita believes that these days, leaders have to lift the uncertainty from people’s shoulders. Morra agrees. And you can do that through clear, directive communication. It’s a powerful way to bring down anxiety on the team. Here’s the example we discussed from Rita’s consulting. Rita was working with a group trying to launch a project in an insurance company. In the United States, insurance is regulated by the states, meaning that you can only launch a new product when the state regulator has approved it.
She was working onsite one day, and overheard the project manager, who is the leader in this case, talking to the operations manager and asking the operations manager, “Are you ready? This launches October 1st.”
And the operations manager was anxious! He said, “I don’t know, maybe…” and showed every physical sensation of anxiety. He was sort of squirming and his face was all wrinkled up. Will he be ready? What does ready even mean?
The project manager is also anxious, and frustrated. He came back to Rita and asked, “why can’t I get an answer?” And Rita, you suggested “why don’t you tell him how many states he needs to be ready for?” And the project manager says, “Well, I don’t know!”
Rita said, “Well, yes, but neither does he, and you’re in a better position to be wrong than he is.”
A few minutes later, the project manager said to the operations manager, what if I told you I expect us to have 15 state approvals on launch day? Do you think you could tell me whether you’re ready? And Rita, you shared that the change was electric. Within two seconds the operations manager had the whole plan laid out, he had all the staffing he needed, he had the levels. Said he could maybe do 17 states.
No fact had changed! There was nothing different about the situation. There was no new data, there was no test that had been done or experiment that had been run. All that had happened was the senior leader had taken that uncertainty and anxiety off the operations manager’s shoulders.
Rita advises, when you’re dealing with massive amounts of uncertainty, your job is not to be right. It’s to offer as much clarity as possible while you are in the process of discovering what the right answer is.
Anxiety loves a vacuum. And when you leave a vacuum in communications, anxiety rushes in. And so what your example shows is that the project manager had left a vacuum in the communication, leaving the employee to feel extremely anxious. And when he gave a clear deliverable and closed that vacuum anxiety lessens.
Facing the uncertain? We can help.
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