A process of change can take on many guises. It can be a major crisis or a great opportunity. Yet every single process of change involves two decisive components: Anxiety and Trust. There is no certainty in life. It is never there, but its absence is most apparent in processes that are first and foremost about change.
Uncertainty, however, creates anxiety. Uncertainty about what we are facing implies potential danger. Potential danger is the basic trigger of anxiety. Part of our fear of that which we do not know is anticipatory anxiety: the fear of fear itself. This anxiety is the kind of fear that paralyses us humans more than anything else. It makes us blind. Chronic anticipatory anxiety and excessive fear block a clear view of reality and thus disable the ability to perceive potential. It prevents learning, flexibility and development. These, however, are tools that are essential to surviving a crisis.
The success of a process will hinge on your attitude towards fear and anxiety (your own as well as that of your colleagues) and the way this attitude affects your relationship to confidence and hope. What courses of action are open to managers in a situation that is shaped by uncertainty? How can they reduce anxiety and establish trust; how can they make sure that they and their employees will not fall into a state of anxious paralysis in the face of potential danger and threat? If you allow room for these questions and attempt to find answers to them, you will be able to master any crisis.
Fear: Processes of change entail concrete threats for all those who are involved. These can include the loss of a workplace, status loss, an increased workload, the fear of not being good enough. Each process of change has its winners and its losers. These fears are real or are felt to be real and refer to potential realities. They are concrete and relate to a particular issue.
Anxiety: Diffuse anxieties do not need to be directed towards a given object. These are basic anxieties that are contained in the essence of human existence and are differently well developed in each person, depending on personal histories. They emerge in response to individual triggers.
Managers can respond to both fear and anxiety in positive ways. Basic anxieties include:
- the fear of change – experience of transience and uncertainty
- the fear of finality – experience of bondage
- the fear of closeness – experience of dependency
- the fear of individuation – experience of isolation, lack of shelter
Avoidance strategies in response to anxiety
- Avoidance: Avoidance of situations and persons who trigger anxiety.
- Trivialization: Belittling the anxiety, playing down its symptoms.
- Repression: Deflecting from the anxiety, the anxiety is numbed and protective excuses are made.
- Denial: The anxiety is utterly ignored. It is given no place in the individual’s range of emotions.
- Exaggeration: Overdrawn precautions and their compulsive repetition aim to reduce anxiety.
- Generalisation: Creating norms to correspond with individual anxieties.
- Heroization: Only the strong can handle anxiety. You are a hero.
In the short term, these strategies can reduce anxiety. However, they all result in an inability to deal with the threatening situation in a clear, appropriate and constructive manner. It becomes impossible to employ the available resources for a constructive treatment of the crisis. The potential to actually solve the crisis is thus blocked. In the long term, avoidance strategies result in rising personal anxiety levels. The avoidance strategies will increasingly fail, and this failure will cause social, psychological and physical symptoms of illness.
More than 26 per cent of medical complaints registered in the EU are due to psychological disorders: they make up more incidences than heart disease and cancer. The greatest part of these 26 per cent are related to anxiety and depression.
Fourteen per cent of Europe’s total population have suffered anxiety disorder!
Anxiety causes personal suffering as well as a loss of creative and productive capacity: it is, beyond anything else, an enormous macroeconomic factor. The statistics of the Bundesverband der Betriebskrankenkassen [federal association of company health insurance funds] show that a quarter of all sick-leave certificates and a twelfth of all days off work in Germany are explained by psychological disorders. Since the early 1990s, the percentage of sick-leave due to such disorders has more than doubled.
It used to be the case that an employee entering a company could be certain that one day he or she would be handed a golden watch to mark their 25 years with the company. Nowadays, it can happen that everything is fine on a Thursday and the department is closing down on the following Monday. Restructuring processes in companies can trigger anxieties when they result in demands that individuals fulfil new roles that do not match their personality: for example, when an assiduous accountant with a knack for numbers is suddenly required to enter customer service and give advice. In the modern society we live in, all relationships are qualified by the possibility of their dissolution. This considerably adds to a sense of uncertainty.
What needs to be done?
- The first thing managers have to do in order to properly deal with active anxieties in a situation of change is to recognize them. It does not matter whether these are concrete fears or diffuse anxieties, whether they are realistic or not.
- You will find it easier to deal with the anxieties of others when you are able to recognize basic anxieties in your own life for yourself. Once you have accepted your own fears, you will not need to resort to a defensive reaction when you are confronted with anxiety.
2. Reduction of Anxiety
The emotional opposite of fear is trust. There are two types of trust. They are interdependent:
- Trust in yourself and your own capabilities and
- Trust in others
Fear knocked. Trust opened. There was no-one there. (Chinese)
When confronted with a situation of change that triggers their anxieties, employees in a company will turn to their superiors for guidance. As a manager, you thus have to contribute to ensuring that
- your colleagues trust you
- you create situations and an atmosphere in which your colleagues can believe in themselves and their capabilities (self-efficacy).
We know from child psychology that certain experiences cause a child to lose their absolute trust in themselves and their environment. These forms of disappointment also affect adults, thus reducing their belief in themselves and their environment, e.g., their business:
I. Trust in management is lost when:
- there is a sense of being left alone; when there is nobody there when help is needed
- superiors announce something and do not keep it
- superiors appear to be acting without reason or arbitrarily, especially with regard to negative sanctions
- superiors vent their temper on their employees
- there is no continuity in management behaviour. In other words: your colleagues will only trust you if there is a clear and functional management coalition
II. Trust in one’s own person and capabilities is lost when:
- demands that are made are continuously set too high, so that employees will repeatedly experience a failure to succeed
- criticism is delivered much more frequently than appreciation is voiced
- employees feel that they are helplessly delivered to a situation
- superiors are overly protective and controlling, they don’t allow their employees the room to make their own experiences
- they cannot experience their own ability to learn, effect and be independent
- there is no differentiation between uncertainty regarding the self and uncertainty regarding the situation
- superiors or employees feel that they have to be flawless
Trust in oneself and one’s own abilities will rise, given:
Experience of self-efficacy
Whenever people experience that they can have an effect, that they are actors who make a difference, their trust in themselves will grow. This is most effective when a person has successfully handled a difficult situation. If these successes are then ascribed to that person, the expectation of self-efficacy will grow most: difficult future situations are faced with more confidence and individual failures are met with a greater tolerance for frustration.
Watching other people master a difficult task or believe that they can handle it, raises a person’s own belief in their ability to handle it. Greater similarity and proximity between the person watching and the person being watched will increase the influence the example can have.
People who are met with confidence and benevolence and who are trusted by others that they can master a given situation are more likely to believe in themselves than those whose abilities are doubted. At the same time, it is important not to make unrealistic demands.
People who are able to influence their level of agitation (e.g., using breathing techniques, disciplined thought and self-reflection, sport to vent physical excitement, etc.), are more likely to believe in themselves and their self-efficacy, as they experience that they are not helplessly delivered to their own emotions and states of agitation.
Thus, the following is valid: There are many reasons to be anxious. When anxieties are recognized and not avoided, the human ability to act will be retained and people will be able to handle crises. And to stay healthy. There is no certainty. There is confidence.
Fear and joy are magnifying glasses. (Jeremias Gotthelf)
Rüdiger Müngersdorff, Katja Schröder