Feeling Anxious at Work? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I’m a mid-level manager with a large team. My boss pretty much leaves me on my own to get my job done. He knows he can trust me. My problem is that I am constantly anxious about my performance, even though no one tells me it isn’t good enough.

Everyone keeps talking about people who are strategic, and I honestly don’t know what that means. I’m pretty sure I am not. Right now we are setting our goals for the year and it’s difficult for me. I think I’m just not a very good planner.

The more I think about this stuff, the more anxious I get. I feel like it is ruining my life.




Dear Anxious,

Okay, let’s unpack one item at a time, shall we? First things first: your anxiety. It appears there is no rational reason for you to be anxious. Your boss trusts you, you are doing your job well, and you aren’t great at planning—but very few people are.

Have you always had a lot of anxiety, or is this a new development?

If you have always been anxious, you might consider working with a therapist to get to the bottom of it and get some real help. Most organizations have Employee Assistance Programs that are totally confidential and allow for at least a couple of visits with a professional. It can’t hurt and will probably help.

If your anxiety is new, you might examine what has recently changed. Are you watching the news more? That will ratchet up anyone’s anxiety. Have you altered your living situation? It’s possible that a change in routine has thrown you off balance. Often even small changes that we think shouldn’t affect us can throw us for a loop.

One client I worked with was a wreck. When we tried to pin down what was going on, I suggested that it might have to do with the fact that she was getting married. She kept saying, “But I am so happy, this is a good thing, I don’t know why I am so emotional and worried.”

Even the best change is hard and can throw us off center. So cut yourself some slack. Identify the source of new anxiety so that you can address the root cause. Sometimes just clarity and acknowledgment will help you get back on an even keel.

As it happens, there are a few little techniques that can reduce the hold anxiety can have. One is a gratitude practice. Any time you have a down moment—walking up the stairs, taking an elevator, waiting for a light to turn green—just make a quick list of all the things you are grateful for. Your cat, your new phone, the lunch you had today, your best friend, your best employee; anything good or even kind of good that comes to mind. It literally shifts your thinking and your brain chemistry and will always help, never hurt.

Another thing to try, especially at work, is to list your strengths and everything you are good at. Is there any harder job than mid-level manager? I don’t think so. It is fiendishly difficult to be squeezed by top leadership and by the people you are sworn to protect and serve. I wrote an article about this a few years back. I’ll bet you are actually really good at a lot of things that are easy to overlook when you are super focused on your least strong suit.

Let’s talk about the strategy thing now. Strategy is a big word that means lots of things to different people. The actual definition of strategy, from dictionary.com, is: “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.”

You clearly can do that, because you have done it in the past. It may not be easy for you—but if pressed, I am certain you have a strong grasp of what your team needs to achieve and what you all need to do to achieve it. You may need to think out loud with a trusted co-worker or one of your team members, and you may have to create several drafts until you get it right.

Planning does require a lot of mental horsepower and some creativity; so, really, it isn’t easy for anyone to do. Try blocking off some quiet time, especially in the morning when you are fresh, to map out your ideas. It will be messy at first but you can put it all into order after you get all your thoughts out of your head and onto paper. It will also take a few iterations to get it right. Perhaps you are not comfortable with mess and expect yourself to get it all crystal clear and correct on the first pass. You will need to get past that expectation.

If you really feel stuck, there is no reason not to discuss this with your boss. Just because he can depend on you doesn’t mean you are on your own and can’t ask for direction and support when you need it.

When people talk about others being strategic, it can mean any number of things: they are making every decision according to a big master plan, or they have a perspective of the big picture, or they can see how multiple departments should work together to reach a common goal or how the company fits into the industry and the trends in the marketplace. Keep in mind, it could also mean the person is masterful at delegating brilliantly so that they never end up having to do any actual work.

I worried the same thing about myself a few years ago and ordered the book Learning to Think Strategically by Julia Sloan. Some of the material—more than I expected, actually—was not news to me, but the author had some good tips I had never heard of for thinking things through. I would submit to you that a book like this will help to remind you of how much you actually do know and fill in a few blanks. Strategy just isn’t that big a mystery. I think the word just scares us.

Finally, anxiety is no joke. It can color every facet of your life and make everything difficult. Don’t try to gut it out alone if this little chat doesn’t help. Get some real support. It can make all the difference.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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