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5 Steps to Move Teams Out of the Anxiety Zone

Leading a high performance team is a bit like a team leader taking their team on an exhilarating elevator ride to the 100th floor of a building.

The best rides are when the leader encourages their team to all jump excitedly onboard at the same floor. Knowing that even though the journey might be scary they have the support of each other. It means the team reach their goals effortlessly - riding express all the way to the top, without any stops or breakdowns.

In contrast, imagine if a couple of the people on the team are anxious about the ride. Instead of talking about it, they push some of the floor buttons, so the team has to stop every other minute. Or they join everyone at a different floor, missing out on important information or the opportunity to connect to others. No one takes responsibility for slowing the team down, nor ask questions about where they're going and why.  Everyone is too overwhelmed about the future!

Psychological-Safety-and-Accountability (1)-1

As Amy Edmondson explains in her book, The Fearless Organisation, when high levels of psychological safety and accountability collide it leads to high performance.

When safety is low and accountability is high, I call this the anxiety zone.  Teams in this zone are high achieving.  They deliver impeccably and can often be lauded throughout an organisation for their work ethic and focus on results. But they are psychologically damaging environments as the focus is on outputs, rather than people.  

I have found that there are two types of anxiety zones.  The first one is where employees are worked hard, criticised profusely and have little support from their leader, teammates or other teams.  Typically, it’s a competitive environment where staff are pitted against each other due to the false belief that this will make them do better work. 

While for the second type, resources are stretched and the team has to do the bulk of work under difficult conditions in limited time.  This was prevalent for a lot of teams during the pandemic.

In either case, stress and burnout are major issues.  Feelings of not being valued or appreciated also rise to the top. 

This zone is common in demanding environments such as IT, legal, finance and medical.  Interestingly, I have found teams in this zone who are in safe environments, but due to old legacy issues, they have taken it upon themselves to work hard.  Even when management has changed and they're working in a completely different environment, they still feel disconnected and unsupported.

So how do you shift those in the Anxiety Zone into the High Achievement Zone?

Through the team leader and leadership team working together to convey the message that the anxiety zone team is supported by the wider organisation - they don't have to go it alone or they must work with others for sustainable success.

This requires: 

1. Emphasising Teamwork

It seems obvious, but when employees are individually focused they tend to sabotage other people's efforts or miss the mark on client deliverables.  Having a "one firm" focus is vital.  This needs to be constantly reinforced by the CEO and other executives who must model collaborative behaviours.  It requires senior leadership to prioritise, communicate and coordinate work as one.

While team leaders must spend one-on-one time coaching those who need to better understand that team success is not about individuals being smart, but teams working smarter together.  Not only within the team, but across teams.

2. Focusing on Collective Rewards

Following on from the CEO focusing everyone on working as a collective is tangibly demonstrating how financial success gets shared among employees.

Bonuses and rewards are often a source of untrustworthy behaviours in an organisation. They must be tied to both job deliverables and how generated for the good of the firm. Rewarding collaborative behaviours eliminates mixed messages of people being rewarded for self-interested behaviours.

Restructuring rewards to encourage appropriate collaborative behaviours is fundamental to helping teams transition out of the anxiety zone.

3. Step in their Shoes

Anxiety teams often work long hours and can be resentful when other departments don't understand why.  It's critical for other leaders or employees in other units to sit with them to get a deeper understanding of what they're doing and why.
This is particularly important if you have people working long hours and there is resistance to hiring new people to help them out.  Or even understanding why this department gets more funding or is having trouble making delivery dates.
When other employees in the business spend time with these teams, it can go a long way towards improving empathy which ensures people feel more safe at work.
If this team is overworked and despondent, demonstrating empathy is key, so they don't drop down into the Apathy Zone.  This requires giving them time off, publicly recognising their efforts and taking action to solve their friction points.

4. Focus on Meaning

Without a belief in personal impact, people tend to devalue their job.  Work is transactional.  People feel replaceable.  And while no leader or organisation can control meaningless, leaders can actively cause meaninglessness.

Successful leaders make an effort to ensure employees understand how their work makes a difference to the company.  When you are working so fast, it's important to step back and reflect on the progress you are making.  

After all, we don’t often realise meaningfulness while we are at work. We tend to connect the dots when we reflect on our past work and what gives us joy and what doesn’t. 

During your regular team meetings or one-on-ones, ask:

  1. What are we working on that is personally important?
  2. How do you believe that the work you’re doing matters and adds value?
  3. What meaningful impact are you/we generating for clients?

5. Help Team Members Understand One Another

Team members often come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. These differences can make it difficult to understand and trust people who are different to us.  You’ll often find team members will pull back from interacting with their peers when there is a clash in communication, personality or work styles.  This only perpetuates anxiety.

Help employees understand one another better through openly discussing each person’s working style, expectations and communication preferences.  As well as encouraging each team member to learn how each of their colleagues prefers to operate.

The good news is that there are structured tools in the market place that make this all easier. Assessments such as Drake’s P3 and DISC provide important self-awareness, but also guide employees to share that information with the team. 

Not only that, getting to know people at a personal level – their interests, career goals, family situation – is important for building trust as well. When we see people for who they are, a human being, rather than a tool for productivity, we are more likely to customise our interactions with them in a positive manner.

Working Harmoniously

Transitioning all of your team members into the Achievement Zone requires customising to their different needs to increase safety and trust.  For some of you, you may find that most of your team are in anxiety, some are in abatement, while others are in apathy.

Customising your approach to each individual and focusing on team connection is key.  Underpinned by organisational initiatives that also communicate the unified message that everyone is valued, supported and must work together. 

This goes a long way to reducing anxiety when we feel separate to others.

What is your experience with teams in the anxiety zone?

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