Relax, Being Anxious Makes You A Good Leader

A new body of research paints anxious behavior in a different light than you'd expect. But when it comes to the workplace, it's a fine line to tread.

Freedom of choice is a beautiful thing, but it also breeds anxiety. What if you choose wrong? What if you screw up? Often it's the case that there isn't such a thing as choosing "right" or "wrong," so much as choosing what feels best given your circumstances. That doesn't make decision making any easier.

Case in point: I was a lot less anxious when I had an office job. I wasn't nearly as happy as I am with the freedom of running my own writing and editing business, but I was swaddled in stability. The paychecks arrived like clockwork and I usually didn't have to decide how to spend my day--the job dictated itself. But autonomy is not only liberating; some days, it's downright terrifying.

Enter: anxiety.

We live in an over-anxious world--gadgets buzzing and flashing in our faces at all hours of the day, reminding us what needs to be done. Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the country, trumping even depression, with one in seven Americans suffering from some form of anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

My Age of Anxiety a new book by Scott Stossel, editor of the Atlantic, explores our complex understanding of anxiety--where it comes from and why--braided into Stossel's personal struggles with anxiety over the years.

Among the conclusions Stossel draws in the book, is the idea that anxiety can equip you to be a good leader. Stossel's reasoning: "Anxious people, because they are vigilantly scanning the environment for threats, tend to be more attuned than adrenaline junkies to other people's emotions and social signals."

Anxiety manifests itself in countless ways, caused both by genetics and environmental factors, but it's safe to say that broken down, it is a combination of anticipation and fear--the sense of things going horribly wrong and having no control over them.

While being overly anxious is often seen as a negative quality, a growing body of research indicates a connection between anxiety and intelligence. The link between anxiety and creativity certainly fits with the trope of the suffering artist. Creative geniuses from Emily Dickenson to Franz Kafka to T.S. Eliot were all rankled by nervousness. What's more, a study published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2013 reveals that neurotic people actually do better in group or team-work than expected, while extroverted people do worse.

Those who study anxiety through the lens of leadership have come to discover that it can be essential to setting, reaching and surpassing one's goals. "Without anxiety, little would be accomplished," says to David Barlow, founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. "The performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish; crops might not be planted."

There's a fine line to tread here, of course. When you worry about screwing up, you increase your chances of screwing up, according to a study by Sian Beilock, from the University of Chicago. The key is finding balance--not letting the sturm und drang of nervousness get to you.

"It's kind of a Goldilocks law," says Stossel. "Too little anxiety and you will not perform at your peak … too much anxiety and you will not perform well; but with just the right amount of anxiety--enough to elevate your physiological arousal and to focus your attention intensely on the task … you'll be more likely to deliver a peak performance."

[Image: Flickr user Derek Key]

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  • I agree entirely with this article. Even after more than 20 years in my industry I still become ridiculously nervous and anxious before big meetings or presentations, but within 30-60 seconds of starting all of the nerves and worry go! I honestly believe that I perform better having these nerves and it also shows that what I am doing and it's outcome mean a lot to me. I have now learnt to "manage" the anxiety but I doubt it will ever go away :-)