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Mastering the Anxiety Equation: A Remedy for Fearful Times

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Has Anxiety become your middle name? No doubt we're living through unpredictable times and this is taking a toll on our physical and emotional health. This is becoming most pronounced in the context of the workplace, which is having disastrous impacts on employee engagement and such prized qualities as innovation and creativity, which wither in a fear-based corporate habitat. Some of us resort to tribal, Lord of the Flies behaviors to get by, while others of us just retreat to our cubicle in hopes that invisibility is our best means of saving our jobs. Somehow, the contagious emotion of fear has eroded our fundamental trust in our co-workers and the company.

In the past few years, the Center for Work-Life Policy (according to Bloomberg Businessweek) says the percentage of Americans who trust their organizational leaders has dropped from 79 percent to 37 percent.

The fact is that almost all anxiety can be distilled down to two basic variables: what we don't know and what we can't control. So, the Emotional Equation for Anxiety? ANXIETY = UNCERTAINTY x POWERLESSNESS. You may have heard about the social science experiment in which people were given the choice between an electric shock now that's twice as painful as one they would receive randomly in the next 24 hours. As you can imagine, the vast majority of people chose more pain now as opposed to less pain at some unpredictable time in the near future. Mystery creates anxiety, especially when we feel we have no influence on the situation.

Once you know the emotional building blocks of anxiety, you can influence them. Take out a piece of paper and label it "The Anxiety Balance Sheet." Create four columns with the first one being a list of what you DO know with respect to this issue that is giving you anxiety. Then, in the second column, write down what you DON'T know. In the third column, list what you CAN influence with respect to this issue and, finally, in the fourth column, write down what you CAN'T influence. Most people's experience of this exercise is enlightening, as they have more items in columns one and three (what they do know and what they can influence) than they expected. But, the magic comes from looking at what you don't know and what you can't control.

Often, you can move an item from column two to column one by just asking a few knowledgeable people on the subject, whether it's regarding your likelihood of a promotion or your job security. And, I've often seen people review column four and realize that they may have a little more influence over some of these items than they'd previously considered.

In sum, the lessons for leaders are simple. Even if you have bad news, it's better than no news. Transparency is the leadership equivalent of giving people that electric shock early. It may be painful, but the uncertainty creates an even more distracting and debilitating environment. And, as a leader, one of the most effective steps you can take in harrowing times is to help your people steer away from what psychologist Martin Seligman calls "learned helplessness." Great leaders help their people see how they can directly impact the company's objectives and their own personal goals. The more externally chaotic the world becomes, the more we need sound internal logic, especially when it comes to our emotions.