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Understanding How Anxiety Can Impact Us & the Functioning of Our Teams

Understanding How Anxiety Can Impact Us & the Functioning of Our Teams

There is a lot of anxiety around us right now due to pandemic recovery, and anxiety is contagious. Calmness is also contagious and an important skill for leaders to demonstrate—especially in times of uncertainty and change.

Whether you react outwardly, internalize, deflect, pause, or experience one of many other reactions, understanding the reasons and triggers behind your response to stress and anxiety right now is important for you and your team.

Our default setting, or instinctual response, is formed by patterns of behavior developed over time and rooted in our family of origin. These behaviors include:

  • How we manage stress
  • Whether or not we talk about our problems
  • If we need to solve something right away versus needing time
  • Whether or not we perceive a particular tone of voice as yelling

These acquired patterns of behavior and internal narratives become the default way we behave under stress. In some situations, our behaviors can negatively impact our teams. In order to change potentially negative behaviors, we need to practice intentional alternative behaviors.

While we may be able to calm our anxiety and reactions on a normal day, sometimes things are not normal. It is important for leaders to be aware of their own acquired patterns of behavior and have strategies for shifting their own emotions when triggered. Awareness of each team member’s triggers, stress behaviors, and coping mechanisms is important, and while you can observe these behaviors, it is best to have open conversations with each individual to ensure that you are interpreting the behaviors correctly.

In addition, many of us fall into categories of overfunctioning or underfunctioning. Overfunctioning people tend to put their emotions in the backseat. Overfunctioning people can look like micromanagers or perfectionists—moving at a rapid pace to accomplish tasks, control the situation, and take charge.

Underfunctioning is when emotions take the lead over productivity. Underfunctioning people’s response to stress can make them look like they are experiencing lower performance, a desire to have others help or take over, and/or challenges managing their emotions. Remember that both are instinctual responses acquired early in life, not a flaw in character.

How does understanding this help with team functioning?

It’s important to remember that these responses to stress and anxiety have taken us a whole lifetime to learn, and they likely cannot be unlearned in a short period of time. Many people are not even aware when they are experiencing these responses.

Your team is likely a diverse group of individuals who have both overfunctioning and underfunctioning responses. As a leader, knowing your team is essential while doing your best to manage your own anxiety and practice calmness. Even if you have a team full of overfunctioning employees and you find them all being very productive, the danger in situations like we’re in now is that they can often ignore their own self-care while they care for others—until emotions overwhelm them or they burn out.

Here are some tips for managing team anxiety:

  • Be mindful of your own state of functioning

  • Recognize that everyone is doing his or her best and wants to be happy and free of worry

  • Be slow to respond in the moment and quick to gather information—most things can wait a few minutes

  • Pay attention to the tone, cadence, and volume of your voice

  • Decide the best way to connect (remember: tone is not always evident through texts or email)

  • Mirror the reaction you want—calm breeds calm

  • Check in at times without an agenda

  • Identify behavioral changes directly, privately, and with the goal of listening to the deeper need

  • Understand that most anxiety is driven by fear and early-learned patterns of behavior

  • Acknowledge that fear is not rational

  • Show vulnerability and let your team know how you’re doing

  • Remember that when we practice perspective, mindfulness, and emotional regulation, it helps teams function better together

While we may sound like a broken record at this point, it’s important that we remind ourselves that we are, in fact, living during a pandemic that has reshaped life as we know it for the time being. It’s crucial that we allow ourselves the room to process and respond to the everyday stress we experience in addition to the new day-to-day anxieties we might face. For more resources on coping with stress, check out our blog post, Controlling What You Can Control: Self-Awareness and Self-Management.  

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Jen Perry

Jen Perry currently serves as the Director, Whole Learning and SEL at Edmentum. Jen joined Edmentum as the Learning Designer for Social-Emotional Learning after 30+ years of work with youth in educational and community settings. As a teacher, administrator, and trainer, her passion has been to help educators develop an understanding of the importance of social and emotional learning and build trauma-informed responses and systems. This work has included supporting youth, administrators, and schools in understanding behavior and implementing transformational change through strength-based approaches.