Worrying about work seems to be universal and turns out very human. If you are a business leader, you have likely worried about your work: whether it’s about losing a customer, giving up on a project, or forfeiting a loan. I have discussed my work-related worries with friends, including many of you. I worry about work because of the causes you can relate to: wanting information, lacking confidence in others’ abilities, dabbling in worry that floats in our culture, and perceiving threats that are unreal. Once I was clear about the causes, I went about addressing them.
Addressing lack of information.
So, how do I address the lack of information? I build appropriate structures (and processes) to exchange information. An appropriate structure is a manager’s friend; a good structure can help us solve a problem not only for now, but also for the foreseeable future. What about adding a repository where anyone on the team can submit information in multiple formats – a text file, an audio, or an email? I noticed that my clients preferred different methods of giving information; I made it easy for all of them to share information about their business. These days, collaboration apps like Slack have “channels” where I can exchange information. The structures I build also helps me collaborate with my stakeholders, not just get information from them.
I collect more data proactively, even before I start a project, using informal and formal channels of communication. I have noticed that some managers wait for information to come to them; I don’t. I create structures early so the information flows to me and from me to others. What kind of structure can you create? What about adding a task in your plan to list all the stakeholders and reaching out to them in advance? Marketers use survey design to collect information about their customers, for example. Sending surveys to stakeholders across the globe has proven to be a good way to understand what they need, to help me determine what I need to do to cater to their needs.
Have you experienced a business situation where you visit a client to show her your final product, and something seemed amiss, as if the world changed since the last meeting with the client? I have. The situation occurs because a professional, i.e. I, fails to keep up with the evolving world their client works in. To understand a client’s changing needs, I have built in a specific question (or something similar) on my meeting agenda to understand what has changed since the last time I talked with her. Every time I meet a client, I ask: “Here is what I know from our last meeting; what has changed?”. I embed myself within a client’s team if feasible; I enjoy learning about her business and keeping myself up to date. If I cannot embed myself within a client’s business, I set up quick periodic information exchange calls. I also work with an agile communication approach. An agile approach allows me to look for and bring in information on an ongoing basis. This way, I create a dynamic information exchange and not a static one.
With the appropriate structures in place, is it practical to have all the information before making a decision? No, it’s not. Most managers must make decisions with less than 100% of information, because the time is ripe to make the decision. With more experience in management, I have developed more comfort with ambiguity. I remind myself that I can evolve with more information and can adapt my decisions to the unfolding realities. What has really helped me increase my comfort with ambiguity is adopting a discovery mindset (what if something fun comes out of it) instead of the anxiety mindset (what if I am missing out on something? Should I be worried?).
Addressing my lack of confidence in others’ abilities.
My worrying also come from being unsure that people will do the work assigned to them. So, how do I increase the likelihood of people succeeding in what they need to accomplish, and in turn increasing my confidence in them? I give team members as much as clarity about their task as possible. I tell them “why” they are being asked to do the assigned tasks; I communicate the purpose of their tasks. That means, they know what their task will do in the big scheme of things, to help the bigger goal of the organization. I get their buy-in early on. I listen to people’s concerns, understand them well, and address them as quickly as I’m able. I make “space” to listen to others on the team, literally and figuratively. In a communication training program I attended a long time ago, I learned about the WIIFM (what is in it for me – those were FM channel days) channel metaphor. The WIIFM reminds me to tune in to what a coworker is saying, through her words, emotions, and aspirations. I learn what motivates all the people on my team and incorporate the sources of motivations while working with them; some people want more flexibility in their work schedule, some put their family first, and some want public recognition.
In situations where team members do not directly report to me, I collaborate with their supervisors, ensuring that the supervisors and I are aligned on what tasks the project team members are supposed to do. This alignment ensures that their supervisors are not giving conflicting directions to the team members working on my project.
I also manage myself, in terms of expectations I have of other people. Are my expectations becoming my reality, as the famous Pygmalion effect, aka expectancy theory by Rosenthal and Jacobson (Kierein & Gold, 2000) would suggest? I remind myself that when I expect team members to be great performers, they grow with me to become great performers.
Addressing the floating worries.
There is a kind of worry that floats in our culture. Turn on a news channel; you will find reporters telling you things are bad and people are worried. Reporters have been trained to look for troubling stories: layoffs, murders, robberies, and terrorist attacks. Those stories hook our attention and keep us glued to the screens. Just because they keep me glued to the screens does not mean they are good for my health. When I spend hours reading and watching news, my brain receives a biased view of the world – one where things are always falling apart. The way to ensure I perceive the world completely is to take in all points of view, not just the biased troubling ones.
So, I went on a news diet. I started tracking how much time I was spending on the news media. I was consuming news three hours a day: driving to work, browsing the wall street journal, watching evening news on TV, and reading news on the internet. I noticed that most of the news articles were sensational and written for publicity. They were not helping me become a great leader or grow my industry knowledge. I decided to curtail the time spent on news to 45 minutes a day. If I find an article that is useful for my career, I make a note of that so I can block time later to read that, say, on the weekend. Also, since most of the news is bad, i.e., murder, layoffs, death, I decided to proactively look for good news. It is refreshing to know that there are good things happening in the world, and not all humans are exploiting each other. Now, I decide what to consume when it comes to the media; the media companies don’t.
Do you ever use social media sites on your phone? I did and was addicted to it. The only way to gain my sanity back was to put a distance between the social media apps and me. I removed Facebook from my phone. I visit LinkedIn for professional networking but do so in a planned manner, rationing my time. I also decided to avoid water cooler chatter that is demoralizing; even there, I have a choice to engage with people who are moving us forward. Now, I keep a water bottle at my desk so I can hydrate without adding gossip to my diet. I spend more time with professionals who are forward looking and growing in their abilities, and less with friends who indulge in rumors.
Addressing threats that are unreal.
Years ago, as a college student studying Engineering Drawing, I learned to draw Perspective. You draw Perspective by looking at a structure with a different lens and from a different angle (vs. the angle to draw vertical and horizonal view). The fundamentals of Engineering Drawing stayed with me, years after I studied the subject.
When I use a wider angle while looking through the lens, it’s sort of zooming out. A famous example of this type of perspective is a picture of earth taken from the galaxy far away. It shows earth, the planet where you and I work, as a tiny yellow dot among galaxies, among big scheme of things (NASA, 2019). The project task I worry about is also a tiny dot in the bigger scheme of doing business for my organization. My task is important but also happens to exist in relationship to everything else, along with everything else.
I will explain what I do when engulfed in worries, in terms of Perspective Drawing. I imagine putting on a lens with a wider angle and taking in the perspective view. It allows me to see what my worry really is – a tiny dot in the big scheme of things. I take a step back and get perspective; I see what I didn’t see before – a bigger picture. When I’m worried and anxious, I tend to zoom in to a tree so much that I forget that there is a forest to consider. If I am worried that my boss is going to fire me because she doesn’t like the quality of my presentation, Perspective allows me to see that my boss judges most of tasks I do favorably, and yet happens to dislike one presentation I’m doing in the moment. Getting Perspective allows me to view the moment differently. Once I observe that view, I can do something to address the presentation: asking questions and getting feedback.
Along with Perspective, what has helped me most in my quest to manage worries, resulting from unreal threats, is also one of the oldest arts humans have practiced: Meditation (and the mindfulness that come with it). I didn’t know how impactful meditation can be before I started doing it. Practicing meditation has given me a balanced work life, better health, and above all – sanity. Just a few minutes of daily meditation practice gets me centered and keeps me there all day. When I started practicing meditation, I was skeptical. But just like everything new I embark on, I decided to test it. I said to myself, “let’s do it for a month; we’ll see what happens. If it doesn’t work out, we can stop it.” Just after one month of practicing meditation for a few minutes a day, I noticed that I was calmer. I experienced lower stress level at work and avoided frustrations.
“Fighting fire” is the word managers use to describe a difficult working day, full of problems popping up everywhere they look. When I am fighting fire, I feel like I am in it – engulfed, stressed, worried. Mindfulness allows me to step away from the fire, look at it, acknowledge it, name it, and then pause. During the pause, I can use my thinking to create a strategy to manage the fire.
I felt like I had lost a skill I had as a child; mindfulness helped me get it back. The more responsibilities I took at work, the more beneficial the mindfulness practice became; I started by leading a team of three persons and now lead a team of more than five hundred persons. Mindfulness allows me to stay engaged, solve problems, and lead people when things don’t seem to go our way. Practicing mindfulness has also taught me to be gentle on myself. When I don’t do something well and feel inadequate, I don’t beat myself up anymore. I remind myself that it it’s human to feel inadequate, to doubt myself, and to have that inner critic who compares me to perfection.
I am not alone in believing in the power of mindfulness. There is a body of research explaining the positive impact from practicing regular mindfulness. Professor John Ullman from UCLA speaks of several benefits from mindfulness, i.e., reduction of anxiety, stress, depression, and accidents (Ullmen, 2016). At work, mindfulness practice gives us following benefits: stronger focus, staying calmer under stress, better memory, and good corporate citizenship (Goleman, 2017). Mindfulness can help us live rich life, in that moment and every moment.
Worrying about work is as human as working itself. You and I do it, sometimes ruminating over and over. Structures and Mindfulness seem simple to practice, and yet they can have profound implications for us. Hope you will practice them to your advantage and tell me about your experience.