Many businesses are going through a period of great change where the solid ground is frankly now a bit wobbly:
some are thriving
many are having to adapt business models to provide very different services
and some are doing the same thing but in quite different ways
What is true for all of these scenarios is that bringing your staff along with you is vital, whether you are busy or having to start again from scratch. Good supervision of your staff is always important but particularly so during periods of uncertainty; staff need to know what you expect of them in order to feel confident. They need to know what it means to do good work and to do it well. They also need to know that you will support them and the limits within which they can work.
Helping Staff Stand On Solid Ground
1 – Purpose. Make sure that they understand what the purpose of their job is and how vital they are to your business. Unless they truly know why they are doing what you are asking them to do, they are working blindfolded.
2 – Outcome Focused. Be specific about what the outcome is rather than focusing on the methodology or a list of tasks. Give deadlines and explain why these deadlines matter.
3 – Flexibility. Having explained what you want and by when, give staff as much flexibility as possible to do things their own way. Let them know what the boundaries are, e.g.
house style and values
policies on customer service, health and safety, IT guidelines etc.
…then get out of their way!
4 – Give them credit. Give constructive feedback on what they are doing well. Be specific. “You are doing fine” is not helpful; no-one knows what you mean by that and therefore cannot reproduce it.
5 – Stand in their shoes. Your staff are likely to be feeling a bit distracted: juggling home life and work, worrying about family and friends, concerns about their own health, uncertainty about the future. Check how they are really doing and cut them a bit of slack. In the long run, your empathy will breed loyalty.
6 – Prepare for mistakes. Help them to learn from mistakes rather than make them fearful of ever making a mistake again. Fear shuts down effective working practice like a nasty virus! Matthew Syed’s research on learning from mistakes shows that organsiations that embrace mistakes and learn effectively from them have a super power over their competitors.
This is the second part of an e-mail that I sent to my friend who was feeling very anxious about work. She thought she was being pushed out and abandoned. Maybe she was being paranoid, or maybe she wasn’t. The first part of the email, introducing David Rock’s SCARF model is here.
This then, is the good news; what to do about it. And it’s all about taking control.
What Do You Do About A Work Place That Feels Threatening?
1. This is SO important. The feelings are caused by hormones. They are not the reality. If you were to get drunk and feel like you could fly that would also not be real.
What you need to do is manage the hormones by a) taking any medication that you are on b) getting exercise, sleep and good nutrition c) managing the things that are triggering the hormones d) accepting that the triggers are not helping and telling your brain
“just shut up! I’ve got this thank you; pumping cortisol around is not helping. Brain – wind your neck in!”
2. Get really honest with yourself about a whole host of things.
S – What is your self-worth? Writing out/updating your C.V. might be a good exercise right now. Your worth is not linked to how well you are being treated; they are separate things. What are your skills and aptitudes, what experience do you have etc.? Also, who loves you? Why do they love you? Are they stupid? No. So what is it about you that is lovable, useful, clever, needed?
C – The future is a scary place when we don’t know what it is. So sit down and write out some possible scenarios. What might happen realistically? Winning the lottery is not a plan, by the way. What can you do to make the best of those scenarios? What can you do now to prepare? (You will notice that none of the realistic, likely scenarios include an axe murderer turning up and yet that’s what your brain is preparing you for.)
A – What CAN you take control of? Look at all of the things you make decisions about. You’ve got this. You are not helpless; you have skills and abilities. Take some control and you will feel better; your brain needs this. Ignore the stuff that you can’t do. What CAN you do?
R – Part of the problem is that you don’t feel safe with your work colleagues. But again, they are not about to attack with an axe. Contributing to this situation is being left out of the loop as far as information goes. So you need to be a bit demanding for some information. More of that later.
F – This situation doesn’t feel fair. But actually it might be. The problem is that you don’t know.
And another thing…
…your self-perception may be part of the problem. What do you believe about yourself that is not helping? If we believe that we are helpless, stupid, mentally unstable, incapable etc. etc. etc. then to act differently takes quite an effort, because it goes against our habitual thinking – and habits are tricky little blighters. They are like bits of software code that give us short cuts. The habit of brushing our teeth the same way each morning stops us wasting mental processing power each morning. Habits are good. But our unhelpful beliefs (unhelpful habitual thinking patterns) are not and they are also unlikely to be true.
The Action Plan – this is about getting some balance, reality, control and options.
When you are feeling anxious about work, or anything for that matter, it helps to take control. An action plan works wonders (if only to trick our brain into chillin’)
Write out a list of at least 10 things about yourself that you like; this will help to re-balance your self-perception. This may take a lot of effort. Do it!
If you can come up with 10 easily, that’s great; write 10 more. If you struggle to find 3, then this is at the heart of the problem; you are undermining yourself. Persist. Put the list down and come back to it later. Anyone who knows you well could write a list about you of thirty things without even breaking into a sweat. So write the list. This may be the most important thing you do.
Update your C.V – thinking about yourself in the third person can be really helpful too.
Start to look about to see what other companies you could work for; just see what is out there. It will give you a sense that there are options; that feels better than feeling trapped.
Now consider those future scenarios. What might happen? Write them down. Doing this helps your brain (specifically the limbic system) understand properly what the threat is and also assures your brain that you are in control. Having it on paper can help you park it rather than keep going over and over the “what ifs.”
Now write an e-mail to your company and ask politely but assertively for information. You have a right to be kept informed.
Get someone to read it. Then press send.
Add more to the list.
You’ll be full of adrenaline so go for a walk to use it up. Then relax.
If this doesn’t generate a good response, then it’s time to look for another job. Instead of feeling anxious about work, imagine that; not working there anymore!
I was speaking to a friend over the weekend who was feeling vulnerable at work before the lock-down and is feeling anxious during lock-down now that she is furloughed and out of any normal communication channels. The management style in her organisation is pretty aggressive (and sulky) and she’s had no communication from her manager in a month. She’s had two standard letters from HR; the last one arriving to say that she would not be going back to work in two days time as indicated in her previous letter. She feels like she is being crashed about by waves that she can’t see.
This article is based on the e-mail that I sent her; if your work place feels threatening at the moment, and you are feeling anxious, then this is for you too.
E-mail to a friend who is feeling anxious during lock-down and shouldn’t be.
David Rock’s SCARF model gives us a structure for thinking about what is happening to us during change. We respond either with a threat response or a reward response; we either like what is happening and get positive hormones or we feel threatened and we send out fear hormones, preparing us for our imminent death! This is all influenced by our own circumstance and how we view things. Nevertheless, organisations have a responsibility to not harm their staff; mentally and physically.
Status – our sense of personal worth
Questions to ask – How does this affect my status? Does this impact on my credibility? Where am I on the pecking order? How do I compare to others?
Certainty – our sense of the future
Questions to ask – How well can I predict the future? Do I know what is likely to happen next? Do I have the information that will help me predict the future?
Autonomy – our sense of control over our life
Questions to ask – To what degree can I make decisions and choices? What control do I have? What input do I have over the things that affect me?
Relatedness – our sense of safety with others
Questions to ask – Am I safe with other people? How much do I trust others? How connected do I feel? Am I in or out of the “in” group?
Fairness – our sense of fairness in the system
Questions to ask – Is what’s happening fair? Am I experiencing fair connections and exchanges with others? Is the system intrinsically fair?
Looking at this and asking the questions, you can see that almost every aspect of the current situation is likely to generate a threat response in you at the moment. Each of the areas is likely to trigger stress hormones. If you were on a battle field you could use that to beat everyone up; you would be invincible. The trouble is that you can’t! So you are left with a mental soup of hormones telling you to run or fight but you can’t use those hormones up. It is no wonder that you are struggling – anyone would! You are in a constant state of alarm which needs turning down.
I wrote an article for The Littlehampton Times recently about whether staff need to find their inner superhero. (They don’t.) This is an extended version of that article.
Our values, beliefs, assumptions, prejudices, emotions and thinking are all interlinked.
They are formed through our experiences and have a huge impact on our behaviour. And this can be problematic. When we are anxious, our behaviour can become very unhelpful. If we are facing a phobia then our behaviour can become extreme. But our behaviour can also be affected by much more subtle and benign (to some) situations. Just when we want to react positively, we find ourselves struggling.
Typical examples of when this happens include:
speaking in public, talking to strangers
managing tricky situations
talking to someone who is usually aggressive
doing something exciting
– basically any situation where we perceive a risk, even if the risk is minimal.
We want to be calm, professional, persuasive and competent. Instead we cringe, avoid things, get distressed and feel super stuck, rather than superhero. Sound familiar?
So what’s going on?
Your limbic system, that’s what.
This is the part of your brain that is trying to keep you safe. It reacts to situations it sees as threatening or risky or just unexpected. But it is very simplistic and responds as if you’re about to die. Adrenalin flows through your body to help you fight an attacker or run away from a wild animal; useful in a dangerous tribal landscape. Not so useful when the perceived danger is a shop keeper, or your friend, or an audience, or your boss!
When the adrenalin is flowing we feel stressed, we sweat, our stomachs churn; we may even shake. Blood is switched from our normal thinking systems (our pre-frontal cortex) and from our digestive system and is sent to our muscles. We prepare to run or fight – we need to do a pooh or be sick (to lighten our load) and our muscles twitch if they aren’t used, which is why we shake. It’s all really unhelpful. We want to do something positive but our bodies are trying to stop it.
What’s the solution? Do we need to be a superhero?
Understand what’s happening. The limbic system is an old bit of our brains from an evolutionary perspective and is really dumb! It’s either happy or it’s really scared – no in-between. It’s like having a small child inside you shouting “we’re going to die!” But of course we aren’t. Knowing this can really help.
Learn to calm your limbic system. Notice what fires it off and then really think about what is going on – what is the truth about the situation. Is your anxiety warranted? If not, tell your limbic system that all is well. And then choose to ignore the symptoms. They may not go away but they will calm down.
Understand that the way to feel OK about a situation is to face it over and over. The first time someone drives a car they feel petrified. Only by repeating the experience and practice does someone get to the stage where driving is no big deal – fun even.
Practice makes perfect – or at least it makes things possible.
Practice a range of techniques to control your response, choosing how to behave rather than reacting from fear, e.g.:
Visualise being excellent before an event that is worrying you, so that your limbic system knows what to expect – you being terrific and having fun.
When we are feeling anxious we can lose control of our breathing; it can become shallow and rapid. Get control back by breathing OUT, hard and slowly. Then force a normal breathing pattern – shorter in breaths and longer out breaths. Practice this when you are feeling calm.
Listen to your thinking – is your inner superhero or your limbic system speaking? Telling yourself that you are scared just makes things worse. Instead, talk to yourself about the reality of the situation. For instance, tell yourself that you are in control, notice that there are people around who are looking out for you, remember that what you are about to do is exciting. Research has shown that just saying “I’m excited” is enough to change your perspective and feelings.
Notice and accept what’s really happening – you aren’t about to fight a sabre-tooth tiger. You may still feel anxiety but you have the strength within you to feel anxious but to choose to go ahead anyway. Because you are in charge – not your limbic system.
Your anxiety is not who you are. YOU are who you are; fabulous, shining, clever, creative, wonderful and loved.
Your limbic system is a pretty dumb thing in comparison – show it who’s boss.
I work in fear. I don’t mean I’m frightened, I mean I work in arenas where anxiety stops people performing to their best. Also, I work with intent; both my intent and the intent of those I am working with. I’ve discovered over the years that being clear about your intent and challenging your fears are pretty good ways to start dealing with things.
New Managers – what stops them excelling in supporting their staff or sorting out problems? Fear of getting it wrong, or being seen as weak and so being unclear about what they are trying to achieve.
Middle and Senior Managers – what stops them being great leaders? Facing the pressure from both directions; juggling expectations coming up and demands coming down. This leads to worrying that they might not be cutting it and even imposter syndrome.
Communications – what stops people being effective in their communications? Not deciding what outcome they are after, fear of what others are thinking and fear of stuffing it up.
Dealing with change – what stops people handling this well? Fear of the unknown, not facing those fears, not exploring what choices they have available and not reaching for a positive future state.
In many situations asking two questions of ourselves and others can open up a new perspective and so move things along swimmingly:
what are you frightened of?
what are you hoping to achieve?
I’ll spend my days helping people to answer these two questions. I didn’t set out to do this work; it came and found me when I started to address my fears and wonder what my purpose was.