Spilling over: How working openly with anxiety affects my team

The team might interpret my behavior as evidence of exacting standards or high expectations. But I know my anxiety does impact their performance.
145 readers like this
145 readers like this
spider web

Internet Archive Book Images, modified by Opensource.com. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Editor's note: This article is part of a series on working with mental health conditions. It details the author's personal experiences and is not meant to convey professional medical advice or guidance.

I was speaking with one of my direct reports recently about a discussion we'd had with the broader team earlier in the week. In that discussion I had expressed some frustration that we weren't as far along on a particular project as I thought we needed to be.

"I knew you were disappointed," my staff member said, recalling the meeting, "like you wanted us to be doing something that we weren't doing, or that what we were doing wasn't good enough."

They paused for a moment and then said, "Sam, I get this feeling from you all the time."

That comment struck me pretty profoundly. To my team member, perhaps the scenario above is a reflection of my exacting standards, my high expectations, or my desire to see continual improvement with the team. Those are all reasonable explanations for my behavior.

But there's another ingredient my team may not be aware of: my anxiety.

It's not just personal

Previously I discussed how my anxiety, beginning with a worry that I'm not "doing enough," can fuel my proactive tendencies, leading to higher performance at work. What I hadn't considered is my team can interpret my personal feeling of not doing enough as an indicator that they are not doing enough.

Living with anxiety and other mental health conditions feels personal. It's not something I've talked about at work. It's not something I generally discuss, and it's something I've always felt I was coping with as a private part of my life.

Living with anxiety and other mental health conditions feels personal. It's not something I've talked about at work. It's not something I generally discuss, and it's something I've always felt I was coping with as a private part of my life.

But that discussion with my staff member made me realize that I can't contain my personality so neatly. In truth, my anxiety spills over to my team in ways I hadn't considered. I don't know if anxiety can "rub off" on someone, but when I try to think about it objectively, I imagine someone with anxiety would feel it heightened if they worked for me (perhaps my anxiety would feed theirs), and one without anxiety might feel I have unreasonable or unmeetable expectations.

As a leader—even in an open organization, where hierarchy is not the most important factor in determining influence—I'm aware that I am in a position of a certain amount of power. People observe my behavior more closely than I realize; how I treat people has a big impact on them, the broader organization, and ultimately the success of the team.

I try hard to treat people with respect, to assume positive intent, to give people the room to do their work in the way they see fit. But, nonetheless, do my team members feel the kind of judgment from me that I continually impose on myself?

Counting our achievements

What feels "good" to me (what calms my anxiety) is to focus not on what we have achieved, but on what we have yet to do; not to celebrate success, but to find areas for improvement. So, when we hit a big milestone, my gut reaction is to say, "Great, now that we've come this far, what else can we do to have a bigger impact?" Stopping and celebrating the team's accomplishments before moving on to the next challenge feels foriegn to me. It also makes me anxious that we are pausing in our progress.

This is what I've called an anxiety-driven performance loop. The sense of accomplishment (and the external acknowledgement) after an achievement fuels a desire to immediately start looking for the next challenge. To some extent, this performance loop keeps me productive—even though it has other consequences, too.

What I want to avoid is transferring my anxiety to my team members. I don't want them to feel that I am continually saying, "What have you done for me lately?" even though that is how I feel the world is looking at me. That's an aspect of what I've called an anxiety inaction loop.

I try hard to treat people with respect, to assume positive intent, to give people the room to do their work in the way they see fit. But, nonetheless, do my team members feel the kind of judgment from me that I continually impose on myself?

At a fundamental level, I believe work is never done, that there is always another challenge to explore, other ways to have a larger impact. Leaders need to inspire and motivate us to embrace that reality as an exciting opportunity rather than an endless drudge or a source of continual worry.

As a leader who suffers from anxiety, this is more challenging to do in practice than it is to understand intellectually.

While this is an area of continual work for me, I've received some good advice on how to shield my colleagues from my own anxiety-driven loops, like:

  • If celebrating success and acknowledging achievement doesn't come naturally for you, build it into the plan from the start. Ensure you have the celebration of accomplishment accounted for from the beginning of a project. This can help reduce the "what have you done for me lately?" impulse that comes from moving quickly to the next challenge without pausing to acknowledge achievements.
  • Work with another team member on acknowledgment and celebration efforts. Others might have different ideas on how to do this effectively, and may also enjoy the process. Giving this responsibility to someone else can help ensure it isn't lost.
  • Practice compassion, gratitude, and empathy. This may not come naturally and may take some effort. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes, thinking about their perspective, thanking people for what they have done, and understanding their challenges can go a long way in shifting your own perspective.
  • If you find yourself judging others, ask yourself, "Is this useful in terms of what I want or need from this situation?" That is, is carrying judgment going to help you accomplish your goal? Most likely, the answer is no. And, in fact, it may have the opposite effect!

The above tips have been helpful for me. But the goal of this series hasn't been to provide solutions but rather to share my experiences and to use writing to explore my own tendencies and the impact they have on myself and others. I believe that acknowledging and sharing our personal challenges can reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, create the space needed to start exploring solutions, and to create environments that are more positive and invigorating to work in.

Read the series

What to read next
Picture of Sam in his home office smiling at the camera. Sam is a white man. He has long curly brown hair and is wearing a dark green zip up fleece hoody.
I lead a team in Red Hat focused on providing context, knowledge, connection and alignment to our Product and Technologies employees, as well as working to ensure they have an inclusive, equitable, and safe environment to work and grow in. I am a late-diagnosed autistic person and I co-chair Red Hat's neurodiversity employee resource group.

2 Comments

Over my years in sales training, I always struggled to find a way to make selling fun and interesting and not stressful. Sales can be very stressful, particularly if you are paid on commission and have major financial concerns. I heard somewhere that stress is contagious. Therefore, it must be control in some situations, so it won't spread. Also, because stress is real, it must be released at a time when it won't do damage. Knowing how to do that is a real talent. For me, rejoicing in every little achievement (even the achievement of learning from mistakes) has been very helpful, even if I'm under stress behind the scenes.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Download the Open Organization Leaders Manual

The nature of work is changing. So the way we lead must change with it.