"Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose," says Eckhart Tolle, a teacher and author of The Power of Now. I agree with this statement and I'm wondering how to change what I observe as a 'culture of worry' in the organisation I'm working with. It's endemic. I've been tallying the number of times in the week I've heard from across the enterprise phrases of worry, including 'my worry is … 'I'll put it on my worry list'. 'Aren't you worried that ….?' 'I'm worried about'. Maybe I've sensitized myself but I'm almost tempted to take photos of all the worried furrowed brows I've noticed in meetings and conversations or find out whether 'being an ace worrier' is a recruitment criteria but neither would be productive or problem solving.
Googling 'organisational culture of worry' turned up nothing – the first time I've ever achieved that in a Google search! Maybe I've stumbled on a potentially completely new research field? It's good in a way because I'm about to start revising my book on Organisational Culture for a second edition so now I might have a new topic to talk about in it with a case study waiting in the wings.
More immediately I'm investigating a couple of things: what is the impact of this observed level of worry on organisational performance, and if the impact is a negative one – as Tolle's statement implies – then what actions can be taken to address it?
There's reams of stuff about the effect of worrying on individuals summed up by one psychologist in the statement that 'Chronic worrying is often driven by a need to worry to "make sure things will all be OK", it will affect your mood; it will also have detrimental effects on your relationships, your work productivity, and your social life.' Not only that, another psychologist notes, 'the list of physical damage that worry can do, because of the biology of stress, is long and scary. Which means that not worrying more than we have to may be the best thing we can do for our health.'
Individually people worry because 'they think something bad will happen or could happen, so they activate a hypervigilant strategy of worry and think that if I worry I can prevent this bad thing from happening or catch it early'. It's associated with threat and negative risk. How often does anyone worry that they might win the lottery or meet the person of their dreams?
So, if worrying is potentially harmful to an individual's health, and people worry as a tactic aimed at avoiding threat and risk can we assume that a culture of worry is detrimental to the health and performance of the organisation? I think so. Individually worry is voiced with (I'm assuming) the best of intentions. But I've noticed that it seems to come into sharp relief when something new or different from the status quo is proposed. When aggregated, it forms a kind of collective worrying that verges on a difficult to breach defensive barrier.
Worrying looks helpful in that it raises perhaps legitimate concerns and anxieties that bear examination. But in many cases voicing a worry seems to stand instead of being curious about how to think things through and take action. It enables people to 'sit around and admire the problem' – another organisational phrase I've heard many times – rather than acting to solve it. The cumulative effect is a lack of energy and action around problem solving, taking decisions, accepting risks, and innovating.
Organisations intent on transforming will not do so by accepting high levels of individual and/or collective worrying. Unless we can convert the worry into more fearless mindset there will be organisational paralysis, and a clinging to the status quo. So what to do?
It's possible that by encouraging and pushing we could change the worry and get to positive action. On this, Christopher Logue's lovely poem says it all.
Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It's too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came,
and we pushed,
And they flew.
But pushing people over the edge is not acceptable in organisations – think charges of bullying, claims to industrial tribunals and similar. So what else is possible for organisations that want to transform but have to redirect the culture of worry that resists change? I wonder whether some of the techniques offered to individual worriers could be usable to reduce collective worrying. Here are three that are worth investigating:
Avoid 'What-if' thinking and remember that it's never as bad as you think it will be' – this a tip that repeats across several pieces that I read for individual worriers. But remember that 'What ifs' are the stuff of scenarios so maybe one way of changing the worry is to take a closer look the organisational situations people are worrying about. Let's act them out in scenarios and see what could happen and how much risk is involved and whether the perceived threats are really there and/or unmanageable. From this they may discover that the outcome might be completely different from the one they'd conjured up through worrying. 'It might even be wonderful, and surprising'. Link to the blog on this here.
Another common tip is to just let go and be in the moment. Interestingly mindfulness training that helps people stay in the moment is increasingly being offered in organisations, Google, and P & G among them and there is a fair amount of research showing how mindfuness practice reduces anxiety.
A third common tip is to 'voice the worry' which is not an issue in most organisations. Probably the issue is that the voice of worry is not heard, or acknowledged sufficiently. It may be that worriers have good points to make but don't express them in a way that is helpful. One suggestion offered on this is for the worriers to turn their worry into a problem to be solved. 'How can I/we tackle the issue effectively …. ?' And/or for the people listening to the expressed worry not to turn off but to really hear the questions behind the worry and engage the worrier in questions like 'What type of action would alleviate the worry?'
Beyond these three ideas there are many books offering advice on the topic of worrying. In fact, 3,216 are listed on Amazon.co.uk. But rather than plough through them let me know if you work in a culture of worry, and if so, what actions you can take to change it. I'd love to hear your stories.
PS: If you're feeling worried right now listen to this Bob Marley song