When Work Anxiety is Correlated with Better Performance

In continuation from an original blog post made on HBR by Tony Schwartz, relating to myths that hold back organizations, I am continuing my take on the 4 myths.

Workplace Anxiety does not correlate with performance.mp3

Myth #2: Workplace Anxiety makes people perform better

There are different forms of anxiety. Anxiety itself doesn’t make us perform. I remember from the Four Hour Work Week it was said that Di stress is bad, U stress is good.  Now the relationship between stress and anxiety is pretty intricate. We have to be careful to distinguish the source of anxiety and also consider the tendencies each individual has in reaction to this.

I remember preparing for a basketball competition when I was younger. I would have moments of anxiety before the game begun. Butterflies filled my stomach. I’d have worries about making mistakes. As I glanced over at the other team, I would see how the competition stacked up. Who was taller? Who was quick? Which guy could I dunk on? The anxiety that I felt did not make me perform any better.

In practices and camps we learned that focusing on the fundamentals was important for overcoming situations where fear and anxiety were present. Through constant reflection on the foundational principles of the game, remembering the team’s practices and drills, I was able to overcome the anxiety and perform better during the game.

Anxiety didn’t help me perform better

The anxiety made me focus on fears and negative possibilities. FOCUS is what allowed me to overcome this. Focus on the fundamentals and “do ordinary things extraordinarily well,” as Jim Rohn would have put it is the key indicator to better performance on the job. Back to the question at hand.

When is workplace anxiety correlated to better performance

Many organizations make the assumption that anxiety correlates to better performance. The thing is…. it’s not. I believe this is an egregious error. Anxiety actually restricts our ability to think clearly and rationally. We can be cloudy from the creative solution that we need when anxiety is too high.

Those who perform best in high anxiety situations have learned to manage and deal with things in a constructive way. I’d be interested in looking at how individuals sublimate (transfer the energy) anxiety into other forms of that equate to better performance.

What can I do to ease my anxiety?

Each person will have their own formula for dealing with stress and anxiety in the workplace. Is it a healthy or destructive habit? That is the question. Some tips for dealing with anxiety:

  1. Find your center of balance. What ever this practice may be. Some do meditation, tai chi, prayer, running, tea…. Learning how to center yourself is a great way to reopen the gates of clarity and creativity.
  2. Focus on the fundamentals. There are always basic foundations that we can fall back on.
  3. Seek a sounding board if your are having trouble. Everyone will come to a point and time where they might need to talk to someone about what is going on. Find that person you can confide in. Remember not to make a fair exchange and also take opportunities to listen as well.

Ideas For Leaders and Organizations

  1. Setup a regression room. Fill it with bean bags, silly putty, slinkies, etc. Sometimes having place to retreat and do mindless work unlock new ideas.
  2. Leaders be aware of your anxiety. As leaders, remember that your feelings can be highly contagious. If you are stressed about a situation, your team will feel it.
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