Turning Anxiety into Fear: Leadership Through Change

by | May 7, 2018 | Leadership

When leading disruptive change, a leader’s job is to turn our employee’s anxiety into fears.  This statement may sound unconventional, or even provocative, but I’ve found it to be true.

What’s the difference between anxiety and fear? Fear has an object. You’re afraid of something. Anxiety is a concern about the unknown. It often involves your brain filling in the blanks and catastrophizing. The problem with anxiety is that we don’t know what to do or how to respond. We freeze in a negative, destructive state with no path out.   Fear is different.  When we’re afraid, we have clarity about what we’re facing, and we can start to make choices – we can begin to assert control.

Let’s look at an example of two people that are concerned about leaving their homes:

The first person has agoraphobia, which is an anxiety disorder.   He is incredibly anxious about leaving the house, but there is no particular reason.  There’s nothing tangible to fear, yet he harbors concerns about going out in the world.  He is miserable and debilitated because his anxiety is unactionable.

The second person is afraid to go outside because there’s a growling dog frothing at the mouth outside the front door.   Now, there’s an object to fear.  Now that he knows the nature of the problem, he can start asserting control about what to do.  He can call animal control, wait it out, or make a run out the back door. The key is that he can start to determine how he wants to respond and take action, and that’s a much healthier mindset.

Sometimes as leaders we need to guide our people through changes that aren’t pleasant. Perhaps it’s an economic downturn, a shift in ownership, or an industry shake-up. Any of these things can have negative impacts on the people in the company. In these cases, our job is to shoot straight and turn their anxiety into fear. Once people know the reality of the situation, they can start owning their decisions about how to respond. They may not like the truth that they need to face, but they will appreciate your courage and honesty.

Quote of the day:

“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

— John Kenneth Galbraith