STRESS: High anxiety

STRESS: High anxiety

When organizational consultant Jeffrey A. Miller was brought in to solve people problems at a US frozen food company, he found that the problem was neither of the upset staff; it was the anxious atmosphere of the organization where they worked

An IT manager and a programmer at a large Eastern frozen food company were locked in mortal combat. "Bob," the programmer, was working 60- to 80-hour weeks for "Larry," his manager. But Bob thought that Larry didn't appreciate his efforts and that he often threw back perfectly good code as unacceptable. Bob was so distraught that he was literally hiding from Larry. Larry was equally annoyed at Bob, whose work he considered substandard. He wanted Bob out, but he knew that if he fired him, the IT department would miss a critical deadline.

When organizational consultant Jeffrey A. Miller was brought in, he found that the problem was neither Bob nor Larry; it was the anxious atmosphere of the organization where they worked.

A little anxiety can be a good thing, as when keen competition forces companies to work smarter. But when organizational anxiety rises and isn't handled well -- when employees begin to blow up or hide out -- productivity can suffer in unpredictable ways.

The root of Larry's and Bob's anxiety was that their company had just made a huge acquisition, and the IT group had been charged with integrating the two information systems within a time frame that seemed impossible to them. To make matters worse, Larry's boss, "Ted," was playing out his own stress by micromanaging, adding to the tension. And his "overfunctioning" was affecting people's performances by leading them to "underfunction," according to Miller.

If this scenario seems familiar, you may be working in an anxious organization, and you may not be aware of it, says Miller, author of The Anxious Organization: Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things (Facts on Demand Press, 2002). Organizational anxiety can result from inappropriate, unarticulated or conflicting goals, time pressure, bad leadership, mixed messages and the helpless feeling that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Often, people like Bob and Larry deflect attention from the real problems, such as time pressure and poor leadership. "People think: ëFix them, and we fix the problem,' " Miller says. "But they may not have identified the problems. This is very common in IT."

"I see this type of anxiety in every shop I go to," says Tom Murphy, CIO at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. in Miami.

"I've seen cultures where interpersonal clashes were considered good for the organization," says Ed Bell, CIO at Commonwealth Financial Network in Waltham, Mass. "Feuding and finger-pointing are offshoots of these interpersonal clashes. The net result was projects took longer or never got started, turnover was high, and people were hesitant to make decisions or take risks."

The more people focus on these symptoms, the more anxious they become and the less able they are to see, let alone solve, the real problems, Miller says.

Organizational anxiety can also affect the business in subtle but equally destructive ways. "In the face of consistent and acute anxiety, people really pull inward," says Miller, who is also president of Jeffrey A. Miller & Associates in Chicago. "They're not likely to be very creative or flexible or to make decisions other than the same ones that have always been made. No one wants to break stride from the pack when anxiety is high." This leads to "group think," which keeps individuals from challenging bad ideas.

Because change can breed anxiety, IT is prone to it, Miller says. But IT people can also alleviate anxiety if they think of the organization as a system. "This isn't psychology; it's systems," Miller says. "Change the program a little, and you might get it to run."

Miller suggests that IT managers start with their own relationships. "Deal with each person directly, not through someone else," he says.

Meanwhile, look for an opportunity to change something for the better. "It's just like writing code or plotting a system," he says. "Once one part of a system changes, the whole system is de facto different."

"IT professionals are responsible for change within the organization," says Virginia Robbins, IT director at Chela Financial Cos. in San Francisco. "IT drives change. Our behaviors drive the culture and thus influence and change the culture every day. We are either part of the company's positive culture, or we're the problem."

Anxiety and calm are contagious, Miller says. If you can calm down the system, people will loosen up and begin to address the real problems.

That's what happened with Bob, Larry and Ted. Miller helped Bob notice that the more detail he added to his work, the less Larry complained. Because Bob didn't need to redo his work, he went home earlier. He and Larry began to work out a better relationship. Ted stopped micromanaging and let his staff take charge. All three found that as they stopped feeding their anxiety, they had much more energy to do the work. The bottom line: They got the project done on time.

Melymuka is a Computerworld US contributing writer. Contact her at

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