Worry: I know there is a crisis waiting for me

By Thomas DeLong

Jana Jones was a successful, experienced manager who had run a multi-million dollar business. She projected the image of being able to do it all. She was COO of an internet consulting firm and had previously run a major piece of a large consulting firm. Decisive, energetic, smart, driven and with a wonderful family, she seemingly had it made. Her managerial style, however, did not suggest someone who had everything going for her. Instead, it reflected a high-need-for-achievement professional who had fallen into the worrying trap.

Jana made others nervous because of her anxiety-ridden managerial style. In good times and bad, she worried, and she shared her worries with others. She was a master at turning any positive possibility into five potential negative outcomes. After an interaction, her subordinates left more worried than before the interaction began. Colleagues often remarked that they avoided walking by her office because they could feel her worry.

Her horizon always seemed ominous; there was some disaster visible in the distance and approaching fast. One colleague lamented, “Every time I had what I thought was a good idea or an alternative way of looking at a problem Jana would convince me that my idea could cause the downfall of the company.”

But Jana, like many driven professionals today, often worries needlessly, excessively and counter-productively. While a moderate amount of worry may focus the mind, too much diminishes effectiveness and robs us of our ability to move outside our comfort zone (because there is even more to worry about outside of that zone!).

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While a moderate amount of worry may focus the mind, too much diminishes effectiveness and robs us of our ability to move outside our comfort zone.

Worry about the right stuff

Reflect on how you feel when your concerns about significance, isolation and purpose aren’t addressed. If you’re like most driven professionals, your anxieties spiral out of control and become a trap. Instead of feeling sufficiently secure and confident in your work, you are so consumed by worry that you have great difficulty trying something new or innovative. You cleave to your routines in an effort to minimize that worry or at least avoid any negative consequences that might send these worries into the stratosphere. You feel you don’t have anyone with whom to talk about what you’re worried about and so, these unarticulated fears gain power over you. No one expresses gratitude for what you do. No one offers affirmation. No one helps you confront your worries and get them out in the open. Think about what work worries assault you in the middle of the night and prevent you from going back to sleep. Use the following questions to help bring worries to the surface:

• Do you suspect that you are nothing more than an interchangeable part?
Do you feel separated from the core of the company and feel like your office is an island?
Do you fear that you have lost what drove you to excel when you first joined the company, and now you don’t know the larger reason why you work there?
Do you worry that you’ve fallen out of favor with your boss?
Do you believe that your work is no longer of the quality that it once was?
Do you think that your people talk about your failings behind your back and think you’re a poor manager or producer?
Do you worry that a senior manager, a customer or someone else has it in for you?


My office isn’t large enough

Nicole was a manager who was deeply and disturbingly worried about office space. Nicole, equally gifted managing her team and dealing with clients, had become one of the youngest office heads of one of the larger financial services firms, specializing in the private wealth management arena. When looking at some research her staff had compiled about prospective clients in Los Angeles (where the office was located), Nicole recognized that an opportunity existed to bring in more Korean high net wealth clients to the practice. The problem was that her group had no Korean professionals, and she decided that it would be a good idea to recruit one. The search was lengthy and extensive. She finally found a professional, John, who was of Korean descent who seemingly had the confidence and background to break into this market.

As John was socializing into the new office, he began to act edgy and a bit out of sorts. Eventually the other office professionals began distancing themselves from John. It became clear to Nicole that John didn’t really fit in. Then he made major account sales. He brought in six big accounts in less than two months. Even those who didn’t connect with John celebrated, since his sales reflected well on their team. One week after making these sales, John asked Nicole he could have a bigger office. He said that if he was to be successful in his new job, he needed to demonstrate his importance to clients. During their conversation, John implied that if Nicole didn’t grant his request, competing firms would. Nicole didn’t know what to do, and for three days, she agonized about this choice. She felt at heart that doing what John requested wasn’t fair to the other professionals who had been there for a number of years and also deserved larger offices; she also didn’t like his veiled threat. On the other hand, John was turning into an office star who was carrying out her mission to bring in more affluent Korean clients. More specifically, Nicole wondered if she really understood John and his cultural heritage and values.




Speak more and watch the conversation fade into oblivion

Worry is a trap in more ways than one. Perhaps the most subtle yet serious impact of being consumed by worry is that it impacts the conversations you have with colleagues, customers and other stakeholders. Communication is crucial for learning, growth and change; it is also essential if you hope to derive meaning and fulfillment from work experiences. Yet worry corrupts conversation, making it less effective and satisfying than it should be.

As a high-need-to-achiever, you’re likely the type of person who replays conversations in your head. You analyze what you said, what you should have said and what you might say in the future. These internal monologues, in which you reprimand yourself for a conversation that didn’t go well, hurt your external dialogues. Your conversations are less rewarding and less productive than they should be because you’re so worried before and after you have them. This is especially true if it’s a difficult conversation – you have to deliver a negative performance review, explain a service problem to a customer and so on.

When I ask leaders in groups why they struggle with these types of conversations, they make two points. First, they explain that they can’t ensure the outcome of these talks. There is no telling how the other person may react, no matter how much they might have rehearsed their part of the conversation. They anticipate the other person reacting emotionally or with invective. They fear that what they are advocating or proposing will be shot down. Second, the time leading up to having the tough conversation is more trying and more stressful than having the conversation itself. Jeffrey Kerr, a noted family therapist and executive coach, has found that the obsessing before the conversation causes conversation initiators to prepare in the wrong ways. Typically, this individual focuses on the content of the message rather than on the process or affect or how to communicate more effectively.

One worry often leads to another worry. The dialogue doesn’t go well, the frustrated manager starts ranting and raving, the direct report clearly isn’t getting the message and both leave the conversation feeling worse than they did before they talked. The manager laments, “Why didn’t person X listen more? Why didn’t person X respond the way I wanted him to respond? Doesn’t he understand that I’m giving him this feedback to help him? It’s for his own good.”

This last point goes to the source of worry. Contrary to what some people believe, it doesn’t emanate only from the head, but can come from the heart as well. The quoted manager in the previous paragraph cares about his direct report; he is giving him feedback that he believes will help his performance and his career. He is willing to have a tough conversation and deal with the situation because he’s genuinely concerned about this individual. The more we care, the more we worry, and though we have the best of intentions, our intense anxiety can cause us to approach a person or a problem in the wrong way. Worry clouds our judgment, and we end up making bad decisions because of it.

The more we care, the more we worry, and though we have the best of intentions, our intense anxiety can cause us to approach a person or a problem in the wrong way.

From worry to guilt

You’ve probably heard people complain, “The more I have to do, the less I get done.” If you’re the type of ambitious professional who bites off more than you can chew, you’ve probably experienced this feeling. You have so many tasks on your to-do list that you start worrying incessantly about getting them done, and the more time you spend worrying, the less energy you have for the tasks themselves.

Most of the time, high-need-to-achievers feel fulfilled only when they have too many items on their agendas. At the same time, they are always worrying that they won’t cross off enough items on their lists to experience relief and be successful. They believe they will be less than adequate if they aren’t balancing many projects. Yet when they have too many things to do, they feel ongoing guilt because no matter what they are accomplishing, they think they should be doing something else. They believe they don’t have enough time to accomplish everything and too many things to do.

Highly ambitious, hard-charging professionals fan the flames of their worry because of role overload or inter role conflict (Lorsch, Aligning the Stars). Because they have too much to do, they must sacrifice one thing for another and in so doing set up the perfect scenario to worry even more because they are leaving some items behind. One friend lamented, “I really do feel like I’m on a hamster wheel. I really do feel like I might never get off. I worry whether I will ever get off and at the same time worry what would happen if I did get off and couldn’t get back on. Either way I’m a mess. Either way I worry myself to sleep at night and get up most mornings tired. What’s pathetic about this pattern is that I don’t feel like I’m fully engaged in life unless I am worrying and tired all the time.”

Catherine had attended an executive program at the Harvard Business School when she said, “Tom, as much as I liked the program in Boston I left your program more worried than I had been before I arrived. Admittedly, I did get some answers but I think I wrote down more questions with my new found knowledge. All I’ve done since I arrived home is ruminate and worry about where I should begin and what the sequencing should be and who I should involve in the process. I worry about the plateaued partners in the firm who are not producing. I worry about the associates who are not being mentored and feel disconnected from the firm. I worry about the lack of women partners and associates. I thought we had dealt with this issue but it seems as prevalent today as it was 10 years ago. All I know is that the more I think about these issues the more I realize that I can’t do it alone.”

The longer Catharine worried, the more she lost context and perspective. It was as if she were making up problems or at the very least magnifying them beyond their actual size. She was beginning to see everything as catastrophic. She knew she needed help and was basically stuck in the mud, spinning her wheels. Everything seemed urgent and important. She couldn’t differentiate between what needed to be done today or in three weeks or three years. She didn’t know who she should seek help from. Rather than delegate or outsource or request assistance from colleagues and bosses, she keep all this agonizing internal (until she spoke with me). Logically, Catherine could have moderated or even eliminated some of her worries by gathering resources or proposing a new program. But the worrying trap discourages action – especially new and innovative action – in favor of passive fretting.


Do you love me as much as I love you?

Contrary to the stereotype, most hard-charging, ambitious professionals care what others think about them. In fact, they care deeply. When they enter the office in the morning, they may put on their corporate face and seem like they’re all about business, but underneath they’re vitally concerned with what their colleagues think about them. For this reason, much of the worry that transpires in the workplace relates to how they perceive their relationships with others.

Consider the types of worries that typically beset the driven professional:

• We worry if the boss likes us as much as she does our internal competition for the next promotion.
We worry that our subordinates like us and respect us less than someone else in the organization.
We worry that the CEO or other top executive doesn’t know who we are or doesn’t recognize our contribution.
We worry when a colleague quits initiating with us and seems to distance himself from us.
We worry that we have let down a valued customer or client.
We worry that a supplier feels as if we have betrayed their trust.

The worry is endless when it comes to relationships not only in our professional but in our private lives. We don’t think about it or direct the worry consciously, but it’s integral to the human condition—and being a high-need-to-achiever exacerbates it.

Think about worry as a type of social exchange. Most high-need-to-achievers start agonizing when it seems like an unequal exchange is occurring: Bill appears to be far less interested in your business relationship than you are; he doesn’t call or email you as much as you call and email him. Some business pundits have referred to this phenomenon as “the power of least interest.” In other words, the person in a relationship who has the least interest in the relationship has the most power in the relationship. If I have less interest in becoming acquainted with you than you have in getting to know me, then I have the power in the relationship. People worry all the time about these power inequities in work relationships, and that’s when problems results – problems that harm careers and hurt organizations (Social Exchange Theory).

When I mention the power of least interest in seminars the first thing that comes to mind for most participants is a personal relationship. Most think of a time that they wanted the attention of someone else and weren’t getting that attention. They think about the actions they took to change the power dynamics in the relationship. They try and figure out whether it’s even worth it to invest in the effort. They worry that if they want to terminate a relationship with someone else, how the other person will react.

We are constantly gauging the symmetry we have with others in one-to-one relationships as well in groups and in organizations. Frustration, fear and anxiety all play into the particular drama that unfolds. We strive for equal partnerships in all our relationships. Even though a manager may have a formal position that places him higher in the hierarchy, we still want to know that the other person is invested in the relationship as much as we are. This desire will never change. And the worry will never abate. Notice how many dysfunctional actions take place in organizations and in families when an individual within those systems feels underappreciated, excluded, threatened or inadequate. When people believe that they have received a signal that they don’t matter, they often respond with dysfunctional behavior.


Be ambiguous at your peril

There was a time when how I had just finished teaching a class on motivation and was leaving the class when a student stopped me and complimented me on how great the discussion was. Because I was in a hurry and distracted by other matters, I just stared at him blankly and moved on.

If I were this student, I’d be thinking to myself, “I wonder if Tom didn’t hear me.” Or: “What an arrogant jerk. He’s always talking about listening and being authentic and he just blew me off.” Or perhaps the thinking would progress to, “Well, I made a comment in class today. I wonder if it wasn’t that good.” Or: “I thought I was doing well in DeLong’s class. Maybe I’m not.” If I had simply spent two seconds to acknowledge this student’s compliment, I could have stopped him from engaging in this worrisome thinking.

We have a tendency to interpret any message, behavior or even a lack of information ambiguously; in turn, all ambiguous behavior is interpreted negatively. If the leader of the company shares a confusing strategy with future employees, the employees will worry that the organization’s direction is not well thought out. If a manager sends an ambiguous e-mail about a particular client, the receiver of the e-mail will think something is wrong not only with the client but with the relationship between the manager and client. In my situation with the student, my behavior was ambiguous. It allowed him to create a negative interpretation of my ambiguous behavior. This was not the way to create a connected and secure relationship.

Consider how you respond to ambiguity at work. If you’re like most people, you probably never realized how much ambiguity surrounds you or how it causes you to worry. Your boss doesn’t tell you “good job” after reviewing your analysis and you wonder if he’s thinking, “lousy job”.

To counteract the worrying that is exacerbated by ambiguity, here are some tactics that can help:

Force yourself to question the individual involved to determine what he or she really means. Yes, I know all your high-need-to-achieve instincts are telling you not to, but no matter how bad the truth might be, it’s better than the worrying that ambiguity intensifies. If you need further motivation, remind yourself that passivity is the coward’s way out.
Make a real or mental note of all positive responses when you confront people about their ambiguous statements. Most of the time, forcing definitive responses from ambiguous speakers will reassure you – you’ll discover their ambiguity was inadvertent and not meant to demean you. Keeping this fact in mind will help you worry less the next time someone speaks ambiguously.
Do something when your worst fears are realized. Let’s say it’s true; your boss really does believe you’re not working up to your potential. If this is the case, don’t stew and fret and complain to friends and family. Instead, take action by: 1) Get specifics about what you’re doing wrong, what more you should be doing, etc. 2) Create a plan to correct the problem. 3) Charge someone with making sure you carry out the plan. High-need-to-achievers are doers, and if you remain passive, you’ll simply worry more. Making yourself conscious of these traps is a great first step to avoid falling into them. Next, try some of the tactics I’ve suggested here; they can help you escape the worrying traps you might fall into. Perhaps most important of all, is creating a larger strategy for change and improvement to overcome the anxieties that make us rigid, fearful and helpless, and this strategy is the subject of the following chapters.

The article is an excerpt from Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success, by Thomas J. DeLong, Harvard Business Press (2011)

About the author

Thomas J. DeLong is the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice in the Organizational Behavior area at the Harvard Business School. At Harvard, Professor DeLong teaches MBA and executive courses focused on managing human capital, organizational behavior, leadership and career management.

DeLong teaches globally in a myriad of executive programs as well as executive courses on campus. He consults with leading organizations on the process of making individual and organizational change.  His new book, Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success, centers on the challenges of helping talented professionals who are resistant to change.




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