Your Response in Times of Fear and Anxiety

Guest Contributor Carlann Fergusson

It’s difficult to be a leader in times of change and even harder to be a leader in times of a pandemic because anxiety factors are even higher. The role of the CFO carries an especially tough burden as our efforts to maintain cash flow, liquidity and even, corporate viability, collide with the need to address the fears and anxieties caused by the pandemic.

This tool’s intent is to 1) provide a framework to understand why this event is so different, and 2) provide guidance on things you can do to be an effective leader in these uncertain times.

1. Understanding Fear and Anxiety:

Fear is an alarm reaction to imminent or anticipated pain. Fear triggers our flight or fight response and takes us out of our rational brain to our survival brain. This shift allows us to focus intently on whatever we need to do to keep this one body alive.

Anxiety, as defined by Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist and author, is the mismatch between perceived threat and perceived resources. On a recent podcast (https://beingwell.simplecast.com/episodes/fear-in-the-time-of-coronavirus) Dr. Hansen explained that the pandemic has several key components that triggers fear and anxiety at a deep primal level. I integrated several of his thoughts with my own insight based from over twenty years leading large-scale changes including downsizings and closures for global corporations to create a framework for understanding fear and anxiety during a pandemic.

Perceived Threat:

This virus poses a perceived threat at a deep primal level because unlike many fears, it is invasive, invisible, and intense. Its highly invasive and contagious nature has permeated every corner of the globe, our states, and our way of life. It has changed the way we work and the way we live. Adding to our fear of invasiveness, the media is focused on the negative numbers associated with the virus. They report on the number of new cases, the number of severe cases and the number of deaths. They rarely report on the number of recovered cases, the number of mild cases or the ratio of deaths to the overall population. This doom and gloom focus exponentially raises fears that the virus is more invasive.

Unlike most threats that countries face, this virus is a faceless enemy that we can’t see. We aren’t sure where it likes to hide and how it attacks different people at various levels of severity. We have no special infrared goggles to detect its presence. Our science and technology solutions are woefully equipped to track it down as many tests yield “inconclusive” results. In addition, we aren’t quite sure how long a person has been infected or the expected duration of the illness. In fact, we don’t know if this invisible enemy will ever leave.

Adding to its unnerving invisibility, this virus is extremely intense and loud. Doom and gloom status updates occupy every major headline, blare across the media and monopolize our social-media. It is the topic of conversations in our social interactions and during our check-ins with family members and loved ones. We wake up to it demanding our attention and we go to bed knowing it is still screaming.

The massive strength of this pandemic’s invasiveness, invisibility and intensity is striking us at a deep primal level to both flee into hiding and find new weapons to fight its wrath.

Perceived Resources:

Unfortunately, at an individual level the perceived resources to give us a sense of being in control are woefully lacking. We lack information, integrity and initiative.

We don’t know a lot about this virus. Our trusted scientists and healthcare experts are having to learn experientially. Dr Hansen compared this to a hurricane and as a Floridian I understand the analogy. When hurricane Dorian, a category 5 hurricane the size of Georgia (approximately 280 miles wide) was headed ourway, we didn’t have a lot of information about its trajectory. We prepared for the worst and waited anxiously to hear where it would go. We listened to newscasts constantly and checked our phones for updates. Two days before landfall, they projected that where my mother lived on the east coast would be directly hit by the eye of the storm. We quickly mobilized to bring her and her cat to safety in Orlando. The next day the models changed, and it was going to be a direct hit to Orlando. So, we packed up again and left for her beach condo to avoid the anticipated devastation in our community. This resulted in us driving through the outer rain bands which I will never try again. We felt at the whim of hourly updates by meteorologists who were also trying their best to give a sense of control over a quickly changing event. We were only certain about one thing - someplace was going to experience devastation. We were extremely fortunate that it spared both of our locations but those in the Bahamas were not so lucky. Similarly, we have limited information on this virus and don’t know who it will impact or the exact path of destruction; we just know it is a widening category 5 and it will be devastating. Our sense of control is limited.

Integrity is another component that shakes our belief that we have the resources to combat this fear. Dr. Hanson mentioned that we are tribal people and need to believe we have leaders who are competent and honest. I’ll add another component - societal motive. We need to know that our leaders’ motives are for the greater good and not based off of personal ego or personal gain. Unfortunately, we are very divided today about which of our global tribespeople in leadership positions can be trusted, which are competent in this situation, and which have the needs of the greater good at heart. This perceived lack of leadership integrity results in each of us trying to find someone to follow. People are reading as much as they can from various sources and attempting to sense patterns and trends across the globe. This puts even more burden on individuals to chart their own path and find their own sense of control.

Initiative is the third resource missing. People looking for someone to take charge and set a direction. People are eager to do anything to feel more in control of this virus. However, they are confused as to what that something should be. There is not one clear voice of direction. Wear masks - don’t wear masks. Wear gloves - don’t wear gloves. It’s ok to go to church - It’s not ok to go to church. It is unclear who should be orchestrating our world-wide response. Should they listen to the World Health Organization, the country’s leader, the scientist testing weapons, or the health care workers on the front lines?

Without a clear unified direction, the result is chaos and anger. This anger gets directed at political leaders, scientists, friends who share their conclusions, or family members who attempt to take control. It is anger that the responsibility and pressure of figuring out a direction is placed back on the average individual who has neither the scientific nor political experience to select a path with confidence. This anger is deep-seated fear that the direction one chooses could result in death.

Without information, integrity and initiative, there is a hunt for any semblance of having control. People are relying on whatever they have done in past times of uncertainty even if the two are not relatable. If you are from an area that experiences blizzards, you may stockpile toilet paper. If you are from an area that experiences hurricanes, you may stockpile bottled water. It’s an attempt to feel that you have some control over being prepared for the worst.

The perceived threat is extremely high and perceived resources are very low; a recipe for extremely high anxiety. The fight-or-flight response is constantly triggered and results in hyperventilation, muscle tension, and emotional hypervigilance. The overall response is exhaustion. Extreme anxiety can also subconsciously enter our dream state and result in restless sleep resulting in even deeper exhaustion. This is a time to be compassionate to others as well as yourself.

2. What You Can Do to Reduce Anxiety:

You can’t cure the virus but as a leader of your tribe, you can do quite a bit to ensure that the work changes you and your company are making don’t add to fear and anxiety.

Invasiveness:

Keep employees informed of what the company is doing to limit the spread of the virus. Keep people informed of how your tribe is impacted. Celebrate every day that the members of your organization are virus free. This is similar to how you communicate workplace safety. You wouldn’t avoid talking about it. Instead you would celebrate each day your team remained accident and injury free. It’s just a quick statement but it reassures everyone that the preventative measures you and your team are taking are working.

Make certain that you and your Human Resources and Legal team have created guidelines on how to handle communicating cases that occur in your company. Many countries have privacy laws (HIPPA for instance in the United States) and privacy concerns that need to be addressed before people are told a co-worker is impacted. This should include how this situation impacts testing of others.

If an incident does happen, employees need to know if it had a connection to work practices. If it did, they need to know how these practices have been changed to ensure the contagion is stopped. Again, think of this in the same manner you address safety related incidents.

Invisibility:


Although you can’t make the virus more invisible, this is the time to make yourself more visible. Check-in with each employee and ask them about the changes they are experiencing. Engage them in that subject that makes most leaders uncomfortable - feelings.

Here are steps to engaging others in a discussion of feelings:

  • Ask them what has changed for them over the last few weeks.
  • Ask them what is working and not working about those changes.
  • Ask them how you might be able to help make those transitions easier.
  • Ask them what they have noticed about their emotions. Here is a trick to ensure you give them ample time to share their thoughts. After they give you their initial response to your question, just say “and?” People have a need to complete the request and will respond with more information and deeper feelings. This will give you a true pulse on where your team members are emotionally. Avoid any attempt to problem solve or fix these. You are just giving them an opportunity to vent. Be compassionate and understanding that this emotional toll is probably making them less focused or productive. If they are feeling depressed, be certain to refer them to your company resources. Depression is common during an event with so many uncontrollable factors.
  • Ask them about what boundaries they are setting for themselves to ensure they do not burn themselves out. There is added exhaustion during these times as our minds are dual processing between work and the unknown. Make certain that they are not working nights and weekends out of compassion for others or guilt at having a job when so many are unemployed. Notice when you need to give them permission to take some time away from work.
  • Ask them how they are handling the increased emotions of their internal and external clients. They may be finding they are having to deal with more displays of frustration, anger or irritability. Ordinarily they are not the true target, they are just available. Help them see this with compassion and patience.

Likewise, be tolerant of displays of frustration, anger or irritability your employees may direct at you. Anger is just another form of fear. Ask questions to determine what they are truly worried about. You can ask them to share what concerns them about the topic they are raising, what they think will happen, and what they would want to see happen.

Intensity:

Be careful of your own intensity. This is not the time to push too hard or too fast for major changes. The virus is screaming so loud they can’t hear you.

Focus on short-range objectives. Give them assignments with clearly defined goals that increase feelings of stability. The changes we are experiencing means there are less resources, both in terms of people and budget. Determine what is most important in the near future and then think in successive small steps giving that direction in stages.

If you’re a visionary leader, be very careful that you are not overwhelming your organization with long term plans. This can intensify fears. Shorten your vision to the next few months. Observe the shifting trends and help define shifting assumptions. What assumptions are no longer true and what new assumptions you and your company should be considering? When you set your shorter-term vision, take into account the speed at which people can work when they are not 100% focused.

Information:

Increase communications, especially two-way communication. Recognize that you may have to repeat information several times. When people are stressed, some people forget, some don’t hear you the first time, and others warp or deny the information out of fear.

Communicate a sense of optimism for the future. Let your employees know why your company is positioned, or is repositioning, to be successful in the future. Let them know that you don’t have all the answers as to the future but that your leadership team is busy analyzing the trends and opportunities.

If your business is negatively impacted by the virus, don’t avoid telling employees the truth for fear you will upset them. For each week you avoid telling them, you get a month of bitterness and mistrust. Besides your employees are smart, and in this environment they are already paying attention to trends.

Help employees separate what is changing and what is not changing. The changing nature of work may have them feeling that nothing is the same, but this is not true. There are many things that remain constant such as your company’s values, commitment to customers, core processes, etc. If you don’t take time to specify what has changed and what hasn’t, employees can fall into one of these three traps:

  • They try to do all the old things and all the new things and burn themselves out with overload.
  • They make their own decisions about what to discard and what to keep creating additional chaos.
  • They become immobile with fear and have difficulty doing even those things that are critical to the company and customers.

Communicate a strong sense of unity. Let them know that you are all in this together. Instill group pride and acknowledge and celebrate wins rather than focus on gaps. Celebrate even the small wins. The landscape is changing quickly, and it can be more difficult to have the same level of success that they had several months ago. This is not the time to raise the bar on expectations and put more pressure on people that are already overwhelmed emotionally.

Share your company and team success stories. There are a lot of very positive and innovative things occurring. People are stepping up to solve problems and help one another. Help others focus on the positive and identify what they are grateful for.

Integrity:

It’s important to be a leader of integrity every day but especially during times of high fear and anxiety. Ask yourself the following questions daily to check your competence, honesty and motive:

  • Am I providing responses that are within my area of expertise?
  • Am I deferring other responses to the experts within my organization?
  • Am I telling my employees what I know as well as stating what I don’t know?
  • Am I avoiding sugar coating the truth and doing my best to communicate as effectively as possible?
  • Am I giving them opportunities to ask questions and air differences?
  • Am I making decisions based on what is best for the company and society as a whole?
  • Am I raising concerns with our executive team and Board based on what is best for the company and society as a whole?
  • Am I willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of the whole team or organization?

Initiative:

Your team needs you to be the one clear source of direction. When discussing the company’s response to the pandemic, tell them what they need to be doing differently. Tell them how to keep each other safe. Tell them how to respond to our stakeholders during this time of uncertainty. Hold people accountable especially for matters related to physical and mental safety. Make it clear what you will and will not tolerate. They need to know you take this seriously and are setting a firm direction.

This is not the time to be seeking consensus in decision-making. Use consultative decision-making: ask them for their input, let them know your decision and explain why you decided on that course of action. Then rally everyone to action.

When discussing work, give employees crystal clear objectives, success measures and deadlines. Break larger projects into manageable chunks. Remember that their thoughts can be scattered, and this is the time to set an extremely clear direction of what you need done.

Employees want to add value. They want to know that they can make a difference. They want focus. Even your best employees that can normally take a roughly defined project and know how to chart a path to success may be having trouble focusing. Slow down and set up a fifteen-minute call with each team member when assigning new work. Ensure they don’t have to try to read your mind about what success looks like.

Make certain you take time to recognize and appreciate each team member and your team as a whole. Don’t expect perfection. Think of it like spinning toy tops and trying not to let any falter. Only this time you not only have all the toy tops related to work, but you have all the toy tops related to anxiety and fear - their personal concerns, family concerns, working in a different location, constant bombardment of news, etc. If one of the work tops falters a bit during this time of upheaval it is not catastrophic. Keeping the majority of the tops spinning can still be a reason to celebrate.

Once the new normal comes more clearly into view, fear and anxiety will lessen and you can return to a less formal style. Be patient with this transformation and with yourself. You will learn a lot about yourself as a leader going through this disruptive experience. We will all learn a lot about how we work and live together.

Carlann Fergusson is the CEO and Leadership change expert at Propel Forward LLC. Her past experience includes leading award-winning global and national teams for Intel, Visteon, Meijer, Press Ganey, Florida Power, and the US Government. Carlann is honored to teach leading change for Northwestern University’s Leadership Program and is a recipient of Northwestern’s Distinguished Teaching Excellence Award.

Carlann’s book, The Insightful Leader: Find Your Superpowers, Crush Limiting Beliefs and Abolish Self-Sabotaging Behaviors received endorsements from Marshall Goldsmith, New York Times #1 Best-Selling Author as well as Jack Stahl, Former CEO of Revlon and Former President of The Coca-Cola Company. Her graduate degree is in Industrial-Organizational Psychology. You can reach Carlann at carlann@propelforward.com or get in touch on LinkedIn.


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