The Anxious Exec

Cartoon of an anxious man

“What do we do?” my most experienced team member asked looking worried.

Standing there with my team, having just been promoted into the role that I believed would make or break my career, this simple question instantly caused me to feel like a fraud.

‘I have no idea,’ I immediately thought as my over-confidence was washed away by an almost suffocating anxiety.

At that precise moment we were confronted by a problem for which there was no obvious right or wrong answer. There was a lack of data, there was politics, and there was an ethical dimension that felt like we had the career of a long-term colleague in our hands.

Cartoon of an anxious man

Standing there with my team, I knew I needed to own the decision and that I needed to decide quickly.

After taking a deep breath I fell back onto the process for how I would approach any complex situation. With those around me I rapidly explored all the facts and opinions. Then we ran through the potential scenarios until ultimately I felt comfortable with my decision.

Another day, another decision…and more anxiety

Although this is only one example from my career, over the last 20 years I realise that the situation above describes the life of an Executive. Each day they’re required to navigate an increasingly complex world where black and white is rare. In this world not only are they trying to decide in the shades of grey, but they’re also trying to do this whilst maintaining their own identity, meaning and security. Furthermore, as an Executive, they’re also exposed in an isolated role with few places to go to for support; those above us expect them to lead their team and get on with the job, and those below look for certainty.

In this situation, it is no wonder that a common experience for many Executives is that of feeling anxious – although the rewards are high, so too are the perceived risks.

Anxiety need not be negative

When we think about anxiety, we immediately think of it as negative. Any feeling of anxiety is not just a thought. Anxiety creates a physiological response that we experience throughout our mind and body, the mere presence of which influences our ability to understand what’s happening around us and our ability to make decisions.

Despite this, anxiety need not be negative. Anxiety provides us with a much-needed flag to help us understand when we are facing complexity and ultimately uncertainty, and therefore when we need to pause and become more conscious of our decision process.

Cartoon of a pause button

Anxiety = the route to better decisions

As humans, because the triggers for anxiety often come from the activation of our human dilemmas we seek to find ways to rapidly remove the physiological discomfort. In doing this, we can become prone to make rash decisions, relying on instinct rather than robust process.

To use anxiety, we must recognise it as the source to help us make better decisions. That is, rather than seek to eliminate anxiety when it appears, we should use the experience as a trigger to help us pause, refocus our mind, and then, adopt a more conscious approach to navigating the situation.

The moral is therefore through anxiety we can Feel, Pause, Think, Act!


Something to consider…

Think of a time when you experienced anxiety in the face of a critical decision. How did you respond?

Something to try…

Next time you feel anxious in a situation, sit with the feeling for a moment. Recognise the physiological experience and then use this experience to help you focus on the process you’ll adopt to work through the situation.

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