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  • Dr. Ken Thiessen

Indicators of an Anxious Organization - It's All About People!


If I were to ask you if your organization is an “anxious” organization, how would you respond? What criteria would you use to determine the degree to which anxiety pervades your organization and limits your ability to reach organizational greatness?

In my experience, most organizational leaders would vehemently deny that anxiety is a dominant presence in their organization. Since anxiety is masked by a host of diverse and complex behavioural patterns, it’s not always easy to recognize. Some of these behaviors appear admirable - even honorable, further complicating the matter. As I work with businesses and nonprofit organizations, what I’ve discovered with a high degree of regularity is that anxiety is so much a part of the organizational DNA that it’s experienced and described as “normal.” Often it’s only when someone new enters the organization and begins to question “normal” or uses different metrics to define “normal” that individuals in the organization begin to reflect on their own experience and definition of “normal”. So what are some of the indicators that manifest themselves in organizations where anxiety is “alive and well” and in an unhealthy way?

A Culture of Blame and Shame

One of the clearest indicators is a culture where no one takes responsibility for his/her own actions. Instead there is a pervasive acceptance of and participation in finger pointing and blaming. The cost of taking responsibility is deemed too high, raises the anxiety level too much, so blame becomes the easier way out! There are always a host of reasons why blame and shame begin to define the organizational culture. It could be that mistakes are dealt with in a severe and punitive manner. It could be that individuals are shamed for the mistakes they’ve made. If that’s the case, why would you want to take responsibility for what you’ve done - particularly if it didn’t work out like you or others had hoped? And even if that’s not your experience, but you’ve observed the experience of others when they’ve made a mistake, you quickly learn the unspoken rule - shift responsibility! It’s safer it that way. The more that management allows this behavior to continue, the more blame and shame become one of the defining DNA molecules masking the underlying anxiety that pervades the organization.

Tacit Compliance

I worked with a client where management encouraged the full and free expression of ideas. A number of staff took the invitation seriously. What quickly became apparent was that management really only wanted the full and free expression of ideas that fit the status quo. Those who persisted in appropriately challenging the status quo were punished and marginalized. The net effect on the organizational culture was a quiet, albeit tacit compliance that masked a much deeper anxiety - the fear of being further punished and marginalized. To the untrained eye, the compliance appeared honorable, even commendable. But to the compliant employee it was a fundamental compromising of personal values rather than dealing with the resultant anxiety. In this kind of an organizational culture there is little real buy-in to the initiatives of management. It’s tacit compliance at best.

Spinning Plates Syndrome

Have you ever thought that the most dedicated, hardworking people in your organization may actually be motivated primarily by anxiety? You’ve probably seen the trick artist with a dozen plates spinning and the secret is to frantically keep moving up and down the row to keep each plate from falling. That describes the person in your organization who never lets a detail fall through the cracks, is always picking up the tasks that someone else has either forgotten or neglected to do. Typically this person is show-cased in the organization as a model employee and is often the standard to which everyone else is compared. For every person who picks up all the pieces there are invariably others sitting on the sidelines, not pulling their weight as well as they could because they know full well that someone else will pick up the slack. What appears admirable on the surface can actually be a well-disguised manifestation of an underlying anxiety. What often motivates this kind of individual is an underlying fear that they bear responsibility if a spinning plate drops or a detail falls through the cracks - even when it’s in another department! And if they carry more that their fair share of the load long enough, they become a bitter, grumpy employee, frustrated that others don’t do more. What’s worse, almost everyone else in the organization happily allows this employee to continue to pick up the pieces, even tolerating the occasional grumpy reaction!

Is Your Organization “Anxious”?

As you reflect on those three common symptoms (and there are more), if I were to ask you whether or not your organization is an “anxious” organization would your response be different? Who are the people most “anxious” in your organization? In what ways do you enable their anxiety to function unaddressed and unabated? What anxiety would be stirred in you if you were to begin to name the anxiety for what it is and begin to challenge your organization’s definition of “normal”?

At the end of the day, “anxiety” in any organization is not a nameless, faceless, impersonal component of the organizational DNA. It’s always about anxious people whose anxiety controls and motivates their behavior and often times controls and motivates the behavior of countless others in the organization.

It’s easier to spot the anxious person and complain about their behavior than it is to seek greater self-awareness as to how we might be fueling or enabling that anxiety. To go down the road of increased self-awareness is to risk facing our own latent anxiety! Ultimately it’s about choosing new metrics for “normal”!


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