With advanced technology, complex workflows and comprehensive policies dominating the work landscape, it is difficult — but vital — to remember that in essence enterprises are not made of artificial things. They are made of real people. And that is why any attempt to embrace uncertainty must focus on alleviating the very human reason why so many otherwise bold and unflinching people resist rather than welcome the unfamiliar: anxiety.
Indeed, numerous studies have confirmed that when the future is unknown, most people have an automatic tendency to fill in the gaps with negative simulations. On an individual level, this unchecked anxiety leads to a range of problems and disorders. On an organizational level, this leads to toxic workplaces (including virtual versions) where the sense of trepidation is palpable. It is a level of chronic unease that one can instantly and unmistakable “feel” in their bones.
With this in mind, the message here isn’t to try and eliminate anxiety altogether. Research has found that some forms of anxiety can actually be beneficial. For example, the thoughts and emotions triggered by so-called “healthy anxiety” can encourage contingency planning, which may ultimately prevent problems from becoming catastrophes. It can also prevent confident people (“I believe in myself”) from crossing the line into becoming arrogant people (“I’m always right”).
Rather, the idea is for organizations to find ways to alleviate extreme and ultimately destructive anxiety across their workforce, so that their people can truly embrace uncertainty. Here are three guiding strategies that connect to this uplifting objective:
1. Decentralize control and empower teams to make decisions.
During periods of uncertainty, the traditional tendency among leaders is to consolidate control and steer the ship through rough waters. However, uncertainty is no longer something that occasionally erupts and then fades: it is now a constant feature. Therefore, organizations need to empower and authorize teams to make decisions, which gives them more control over their experience and future — ultimately making them feel safer and less anxious.
2. Focus on boosting employee wellness.
Organizations need to encourage and enable employees to practice methods and adopt habits that reduce anxiety. For example, research has found that just 15 minutes of meditation a day can reduce stress hormone levels, increase serotonin, and strengthen the ability to let go of needlessly negative thoughts. And separate research has revealed that higher quality sleep — which workplaces can facilitate by making overtime the exception rather than the norm, allowing flexible scheduling, and improving the quality of interior lighting — can “rewire” anxious brains and dramatically lower stress levels.
In the past, boosting employee wellness was viewed as an optional benefit. Now, it is a strategic imperative, because it is not just individuals who profit when they aren’t riddled with anxiety and have a strong, clear mind to make the right decisions— organizations profit, too.
3. Build a culture of support and cooperation.
Some organizations are ensnared in a costly contradiction: they want to foster collaboration and cohesion across the workforce, but their environment is characterized by policies, processes, protocols and workflows that systemically undermine rather than establish trust. Naturally, this is a fertile breeding ground for excessive anxiety.
An authentic and legitimate culture of support and cooperation is rooted in transparency, visibility and honesty. Transparency means making decisions and taking actions that do not just bear scrutiny, but welcome it. Visibility means establishing sightlines within and across teams, so that people know where they’ve been, where they are, where they’re headed, and why. And honesty means being forthcoming about the present and future, even — and especially — when the story is unpleasant.
The Bottom Line
Uncertainty is the defining feature of the new world of work. Quickly responding to change is not enough: organizations need to rapidly capitalize on change and create fresh opportunities. Chronic and crushing anxiety is a major threat that prevents organizations — or more precisely, the people within organizations — from achieving their potential and thriving. The strategies above can go a long way towards alleviating excessive anxiety, and unleashing enthusiasm, energy and excitement when the future is unknown and success is up for grabs.