How You Deal With Anxiety In The Boardroom

My article, How you can create the environment for top team performance to thrive, shared how you can create an environment where direct, challenging and honest conversations are the norm, motives are transparent, and everyone shares how they are thinking and feeling.  This in essence is about creating a ‘psychologically safe’ environment. 

However such environments are not the norm.

And when we feel challenged we tend to feel anxious.

To reduce this sense of anxiety we literally protect ourselves by bringing into play what are termed our ‘social defense mechanisms’.

Many times these defense mechanisms are unconscious and often they are learned in childhood. Hopefully, over time we are able to deal with anxiety in productive ways. But short of living the perfect life, we all face emotional discomforts and there are various ways we deal with them. Understanding these ‘social defense mechanisms’ can tell you a lot about your colleagues and perhaps most usefully, about yourself.

Anna Freud outlined numerous types of defense mechanisms that surface when we face emotional discomfort, and others have built on the concept over the years. Let's look at some of the more common defense mechanisms and then some of the healthier responses.  After reading the article you will be able to see how they come into play in your business dealings. 

In no particular order:

Denial. Here, there is a refusal to accept reality. The reality is so painful that it can't be addressed and needs to be avoided. So the CFO of a retail business refuses to see the clear trend of a decline in business but instead attributes the drop in revenue to a variety of extraneous factors, like the weather, or poor inventory control. Whenever someone refuses to consider the reality, in this example that there is a serious decline in business, they are almost always in denial.

Projection. Here, you deny own shortcomings and instead of acknowledging and taking responsibility for them, you instead, see your deficiency in others. Not only do you see the deficiency you see it as dramatically represented in others. So a manager who has poor communication skills, for example, will claim that his boss is a terrible communicator.

Identification with the Aggressor occurs when to overcome your fear of something but more particularly someone, you become more like them and/or identify with them. This is a bit like a 'Corporate Stockholm Syndrome' in which, for example, poor behaviours, if seen at the top, can spread (literally become contagious) throughout an organization. It’s a sure way to create a toxic culture.

Displacement, refers to the tendency to take your frustrations and anger out, not on the person or situation creating those feelings, but an innocent bystander. So the Chairman of the Board just made you very angry but you take it out on a subordinate instead.

Splitting when people or situations are seen in purely black-and-white terms (all good or all bad), without appreciating all the shades of grey or the middle ground.

Reaction formation when a person behaves in the opposite way to which he or she thinks or feels.  So someone might be annoyed with a colleague but is particularly friendly towards them.

Delusion. This occurs typically when someone doesn't want to take responsibility for their own shortcomings. So when John gets passed over yet again for a promotion, he doesn't see this as a reflection of his skill-set deficiency but a big conspiracy by upper management to practice favoritism by elevating others rather than him. These sorts of people will see a conspiracy around every corner.

Fantasy. Here there is a tendency to retreat into an imaginative but totally unrealistic narrative to deal with anxiety. It can often lead to dangerous inactivity and rationalized away with a "things will work out" mentality. So, for example, group conflicts are left to fester on the fantasy that they will "work out" when they really need direct and immediate action. A variant on this theme is wishful thinking, where a plan of action is endorsed merely on the grounds that it would have a pleasing outcome regardless of its practicality.

Procrastination in general can often denote a response to a threatening situation. Sometimes procrastination is a function of another defense mechanism; passive-aggressive behavior, when someone wants their way without having to openly ask and they also want everyone to still like them.  Passive aggressive behavior can take the form of stubbornness through to sulking.

Rationalization is a common method of "explaining away" mistakes or transgressions. Instead of facing up to poor decisions, a story is created to justify them. This sort of excuse making is very common and almost the default setting for most people when confronted with a mistake, shortcoming or worse. “How come the supply chain got so messed up? It was the vendor's fault, a departmental misunderstanding, I was just carrying out my orders, my boss made me do it, etc. etc.” Rarely will you hear someone say, at least initially, "I screwed up. I'm sorry I made a mistake."

Social comparisons. In order to make ourselves feel better (rather than addressing the issue) we start comparing ourselves with others. So, to deflect from the problem you are having managing your team you instead compare yourself favorably to your predecessor who was notoriously unpopular with colleagues. Like all defense mechanisms it's an attempt to avoid the issue, and relieve emotional distress.

Withdrawal and isolation are other ways of avoiding the issue. By keeping yourself away from others, you don't have to be reminded of the problems that are causing emotional distress and thus you can once again distract yourself from it.

Avoidance is a very common mechanism and it can seriously derail the best laid plans of organizations. Learning to detect avoidance is a key skill for a leader because it's everywhere. It lies behind the silent resistance and even sabotage of strategic initiatives. This is nicely demonstrated in a recent article on the INSEAD Knowledge website, tap here to read.

A healthier response:

In contrast to the aforementioned social defense mechanisms that create more problems than they solve, mature defense mechanisms deal with emotional distress by addressing it thoughtfully. They have a healthy relationship with reality.  One cornerstone of these types of response is acceptance, when one recognises the reality of the situation or the improbability of being able to change it. You may well be accurate in perceiving an injustice but if there's nothing you can do about it, it is adaptive to accept the situation and move on.

Similarly, courage is often required to deal with the emotional distress and associated problems. It can be hard to admit mistakes and go into a challenging situation, knowing that you will get attacked or exposed or both. Courage sometimes requires you make yourself vulnerable.

The key to the mature defense mechanisms is emotional control which can manifest as recognizing and acknowledging a discomforting emotion while not allowing it to influence your thought process or actions. So if a colleague has just angered you by being unfair in her comments about you, you don't lash out but instead recognize that you are angry and take time to cool down before you consider what, if anything to do about it. That is you “Strike while the iron is cold.”

Patience is indeed a virtue and a big part of emotional self-regulation. It allows the emotions to fade somewhat and for more considered action to prevail. Similarly respect and tolerance will not only keep you out of trouble but demonstrate values that other people admire. Humility, gratitude, humor and forgiveness are also part of a mature response to conflict and distress that demonstrate that you are in control of yourself. And if you're not in control of yourself how can you control anything else?

Top Team Effectiveness

C-level Executive Coaching

Conference keynotes