I worked with a group of individuals recently who were about to be reorganized into a new team structure. We were doing a team building class; not a team building session for a team, but rather, a team building class aimed at teaching the skills of team building to individuals from different teams. And the anxiety in the room over what they didn’t know about their upcoming reorganization was so potent that we couldn’t get anything done.
It didn’t come out as anxiety, however. As fear so often does, it came out as anger. The group made up story after story about how this reorg was going to go badly and result in unfair treatment. They would be asked to do things outside of their ability; they would have to report to two supervisors and be pulled between them; they would be appraised on work that they didn’t know how to do. The stories went on and on, and even a tour through the concepts of the ladder of inference and our very human tendency to make up stories that are worse than reality didn’t seem to help.
I got back to my hotel room after the second day and found a blog entry on my email from Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Blog that I wished I’d seen that morning. It was a guest post from an author named Chip Conley, who has a new book out called Emotional Equations. In describing ways to become a CEO (Chief Emotional Officer), Conley lays out a number of mathematical equations to increase our self-awareness of our own emotional responses. There were too many interesting concepts in the post to mention all of them, but one that really struck me was the equation “Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness.” How true! And Conley suggested a simple activity that I wished I’d had the opportunity to facilitate with my group earlier that day:
“If we know that the combustible product of uncertainty and powerlessness creates anxiety, we can create what I call an Anxiety Balance Sheet to turn this around. Take out a piece of paper and create four columns. Then, think of something that is currently making you anxious. Regarding that subject, the first column is “What Do I Know” about this issue. The second column is “What Don’t I Know.” The third column is “What Can I Influence.” The fourth column is “What Can’t I Influence.” Spend enough time doing this so that you have at least one item per column but you may find that you have a half-dozen items in some columns.”
The result, Conley says, is that we will discover more items in columns one and three than in two and four. And with a little thought and consultation with our resources, we might move some things from the “bad” columns to the “good” columns. I believe if I’d facilitated an activity like this with my anxious team building group, we might have come out with an action plan for asking questions of leadership and taking a more active role in shaping the reorg in a positive direction.
I’ve ordered Conley’s book, so stay tuned for more interesting emotional equations!