Updated: May 20

Most of us don’t like not knowing. And herein lies one of life’s greatest challenges.

Our fear of the unknown can induce anxiety, and when we are anxious, we seek certainty to take the anxiety away. The late psychiatrist and co-author of Gestalt theory Frederick Salomon Perls articulated anxiety as “the gap between now and later”.

As anything in the future is a ‘don’t know’, what can we do to reduce our anxiety, or at least, find greater levels of sanity within states of not knowing? How do some people deal with the unknown better than others? And when leading, how can we reduce the anxiety of those we lead?

In leadership, it is our responsibility to provide clarity and scaffolding for those we lead. I can only provide clarity if I am clear on the objective myself and have considered the subjectivity of my own opinion and world view. Furthermore, if I am the sharer of ‘the plan’ I am often its architect, meaning, I understand the plan intricately – while those hearing it for the first time may not. I’m reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s comment that “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.

Providing clarity of what and why we are doing something is important to psychologically pace ourselves. For example, if I am running ten kilometers, I will pace myself differently to if I am running twenty kilometers. Put simply, the greater the distance (or complexity) the greater my need to pace myself.

I recently spent a weekend away with friends that was touted by the organiser beforehand as a relaxing getaway. What unfolded was a strenuous 2,5 day off-path hike in a rugged mountain wilderness, largely with no formal trail. We literally made the path as we walked it.

I was underprepared, as the brief wasn’t clear. As a result, I struggled to psychologically pace myself as I didn’t have a better sense of what lay ahead regarding distance, terrain, and altitude gain. After the initial enjoyment of the unknown, I started to struggle physically and mentally; my morale was low. While life is a series of unknowns, it would have helped if the leader had provided a better brief for my preparation and psychological pacing – subjective levels of fortitude and fitness notwithstanding.

As one of the greatest challenges of management is that of expectations, we need to discern what we believe is helpful for others to understand the scope and objectives of ‘the plan’. Too much scaffolding can be experienced as micromanagement, while too little can amplify anxiety and resentment - even for those who thrive on high levels of autonomy in their work.

Another challenge for leaders is to facilitate a consistently positive morale within the people they lead. While anxiety is omnipresent, sustained anxiety induces adrenal fatigue and seldom equates to good morale. Therefore, it is our responsibility as leaders to be ever mindful of how we can reduce the anxiety of those we lead.

As much as we are responsible for the management of our own anxieties, so are leaders for knowing what triggers anxiety in their teams and how to minimise these. To avoid assumptions, ask your colleagues, family, or clients what triggers their anxiety and do what is necessary to reduce these.

Just because you ‘get it’, doesn’t mean everyone else does …... yet. Let us respect that sense-making can take time, and that the quality of our brief, empathy and support is a primary influence on the psychological pacing and reduction of anxiety for others.


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