Performance Anxiety…words often reserved to describe a person’s worrisome beliefs or fears regarding their sexual performance in the bedroom is now being used to describe the same debilitating effects on performance in the workplace. That’s the message from a recent publication by Vadim Liberman of The Conference Board, detailing the “performance anxiety” that has gripped many in corporate America. Years of corporate restructuring, shuffling people between positions, adding, deleting, and modifying roles, departments, and jobs has taken its toll on people. The mantra of “doing more with less” has become the norm as business continues a slow recovery from the economic recession of the last several years. Employees who once feared losing their jobs are now feeling insecure about keeping their jobs.
Liberman’s basic point is that people are having trouble keeping up with the amount of tasks added to their plates and the pace of change occurring in their organizations. Recession-driven layoffs, restructures, and job modifications have forced people to take on extra work, new job duties, or assume different roles and it’s taking a toll. As job scope increases, people feel overwhelmed with the amount of work they have to accomplish, and it leads even the most engaged employees to gravitate toward focusing on the least complex, simple tasks they can control, rather than focusing on the most important and complex issues that need to be addressed.
According to Liberman, much of the fault lies at the feet of senior leaders. Whether it’s pursuing the latest management fad, reorganizing on a whim, or doing a poor job of managing change, senior leaders can be prone to lay the blame of organizational failure at the feet of employees who aren’t performing up to snuff, not taking into account those same employees are still trying to come to grips with the previous round of changes. Wharton professor Peter Cappelli says, “Today, work demands are through the roof. Not just the amount of work but challenges that employees do not know how to meet, in part because they may not be achievable.” Workplace frustration leads to insecurity which leads to a lack of trust and confidence in leadership.
I can identify with these conditions. The team I lead has experienced increased job scope and responsibilities over the years as our business has grown more complex and demanding in today’s global economy. “Task saturation” is a word we’ve used to describe this condition and the insecure, frustrated state of mind it induces. Here are six strategies I’ve found helpful to deal with this “performance anxiety” in the workplace:
1. Create a safe and trusting environment—The number one job of a leader is to build trust with his/her followers. Fostering a culture of safety is essential for trust to not only survive, but thrive. People need to know they can count on their leaders to look out for their best interests, protect them when necessary (even from themselves sometimes), and to genuinely care about them as people and not just worker drones showing up to do a job. Simon Sinek speaks to this truth in his insightful TED Talk, Why good leaders make you feel safe.
2. Ask people for their opinions—One of the most tangible ways leaders can combat frustration and insecurity in the workplace is to ask people for their opinions. But asking is just the first step; you have to do something with what they tell you. The higher up a leader rises in the organization, the easier it is to lose touch with the daily frustrations and battles your employees face. It’s easy to oversimplify the problems and solutions our people face and dismiss their expressions of frustration as whining or griping. Listen with the intent of being influenced and be willing to take action on what you learn.
3. Start, stop, continue—As you consider your next round of corporate restructuring, job modification, or process improvements, ask yourself these three questions: What do we need to start doing? What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to continue doing? I’ve found it’s easy to keep adding new tasks while continuing to do the old tasks. It’s much, much harder to identify those things we should stop doing. We can’t continue to pile more and more work on people and expect them to perform at consistently high levels. There is only so much time to accomplish the work at hand. As an addition to the start, stop, continue strategy, I’m seriously considering adopting a strategy from the simplicity movement: for every new task I add for my team, we have to eliminate one task. Enough of task saturation!
4. Manage change, don’t just announce it—Managing a change initiative involves more than just announcing a new strategy. That’s the easy part! The hard part is actually implementing and managing the change well. People go through specific stages of concern when faced with a major change and leaders need to be equipped to address those concerns throughout the process. By addressing the information, personal, and implementation concerns of employees, leaders can be much more successful in helping their people adapt and endorse the change initiative.
5. Focus on development of boss/employee relationship—One of the primary factors in an employee’s success, satisfaction, and engagement on the job is the quality of the relationship with their boss. Intentional effort needs to be placed on cultivating high-quality boss/employee relationships founded on trust and mutual respect. Frequent and quality conversations need to occur regularly between the boss and employee so the boss is aware of the daily challenges faced by the employee and can work to remove obstacles.
6. Foster empowerment, control, and autonomy—People don’t resist change; they resist being controlled. Much of today’s workplace frustrations are caused by workers having a lack of empowerment in their role, little control over what effects them at work, and scant autonomy in how they perform their tasks. Leaders can build engagement by focusing on the development of these three qualities in the work people do.
Performance anxiety in the workplace is like organizational high blood pressure—it’s a silent killer. This silent killer is not always evident through outward symptoms, but it’s always lurking underneath causing damage day after day. We have a choice…will we do anything about it?