Keep calm and manage your processes
How good process management can diminish anxiety in your organization
According to the U.S. National Institute for Mental Health, anxiety affects nearly a fifth of all adults and more than 30 per cent of all adolescents. It is a widespread problem that can affect everything from our relationships and peace of mind, to our physical wellbeing and professional performance. That means anxiety is impacting your business every day and affecting many of those who are part of it.
According to a study by researchers at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, anxiety is typically a result of uncertainty. Whether the stress of an upcoming presentation or the worry about how colleagues will react after a particularly tense team meeting, uncertainty amplifies stressors and makes us less likely to act positively. It reduces our capacity to avoid a negative consequence by blurring the lines of possibility, and so we become anxious.
Much of the clinical thinking around significant anxiety suggests routines can help people cope with their everyday tension by reducing potential triggers or traps that might cause anxious feelings. Routines help ensure everything important gets done, reducing the worry about unmet expectations or missed tasks.
Which is exactly what good processes should do, too.
Provide a map to instill confidence
Process is routine for the business. It is a sequence of certainty – even when there are uncertainties – that guides people from one phase to another and ensures the essentials get done.
Good, clear, accessible processes are vital to effective business operation and when you invest in doing process management well, it can benefit both the business and those within it. Excellent processes and a healthy process culture can help people overcome anxiety in their roles and free them to work effectively.
In a recent episode of her podcast, The Anxious Achiever, host Morra Aarons-Mele spoke with expert Dr Alice Boyes about strategies for managing anxiety on a day-to-day basis. The strategies they discussed have valuable applications for businesses pursuing a culture of both process excellence and staff empowerment.
Anxiety often causes people to have multiple contingency plans – plan B, C and D – in case something goes wrong. When they inevitably succeed, it reinforces that habit, because their anxiety says it was due to their over preparation that things worked out this time, but next time they won’t be so ‘lucky.’ That is exhausting though, and rarely efficient.
Having a single, clear process which is easy to find and follow ensures the pressure is off them to find a path to success. They can lean into the procedure provided and focus on their role, instead of trying to manage every contingency.
Where there are potential variations, good process management handles them with full notes and clear paths to the variant elements. Keeping that information together in a single source of truth again reduces the tension that comes from trying to find the right version or knowing how to handle exceptions to the standard case.
Anxiety can often lead to overthinking. People suffering from anxiety can worry ceaselessly about decisions or expectations, convinced that they have forgotten something or are missing some significant element.
While reflection can sometimes inspire creativity, endless rumination usually puts people into unhelpful spirals of worry that steal confidence and peace of mind. As with perfectionism, when their worst fears don’t come to pass, it can reinforce the mindset, leaving them thinking that if they don’t overthink it, the next problem will only get worse.
Having clear and easy-to-follow processes lifts the burden of tracking the unknown from people’s shoulders. Instead of worrying about what else they might have to do, the steps and boundaries of their responsibilities are laid out in black and white.
With defined roles, tasks, and swim lanes, good processes reduce uncertainty and the need for people to feel like they have to think of everything. That frees them from carrying unnecessary worry about what is required, and lets them focus on what they actually have to do, promoting effectiveness without overthinking.
Our fight-or-flight instincts are hard wired, and even in a business context they can be triggered by tasks or events we don’t want to face. Unfortunately, avoidance only compounds the problem, with anxiety snowballing as procrastination creates conflict with peers, backlogs, and breakdowns.
Where processes are well defined, that need not be a problem. Handover points are well defined, and activities can be broken down into clear, easy-to-follow tasks. With automation solutions taking the most laborious elements off our hands, procedures can be streamlined to reduce the weight of challenging activities and increase employee engagement with their work. A healthy process culture also provides meaningful accountability, so backlogs don’t build up into bottlenecks that cripple the flow of business or crush team members that might be struggling.
Learning to deal with feedback is a challenge for a lot of people. Knowing that what you have done is likely to be evaluated, and those outcomes enunciated, can be a cause of stress. A culture of continuous improvement thrives on feedback though, so it is important to create ways to manage it which build toward both excellent processes and positive experiences.
Written feedback is generally better than person-to-person, simply because it is less confrontational and teams can process it at their own pace, rather than have to deal with it immediately.
It also means that there is a record of the improvement conversation, so process stakeholders can track the evolution of an idea or innovation. A good process platform also allows for assigned process stakeholders, so the people providing feedback are well suited to dealing with not just the processes, but the people involved in them. A balance of sensitivity and strategic insight creates an environment where feedback becomes a valuable tool for growth for the business, and ensures that those receiving it are not scared of the outcomes.
Managing processes and anxiety
Anxiety leads people to focus on the negatives, and drives them to dwell on everything that could or did go wrong. It is a destructive cycle of what-if that paralyses and punishes people needlessly.
Good process management though is about eliminating the waste that comes with blurry responsibilities and unclear expectations. Where there are possible flaws, continuous improvement embraces identifying them as opportunities to develop better ways to work, not laying blame.
A culture of process excellence can be a positive influence on both the organization and those within it, improving productivity and providing a platform of security for those who struggle. It is not likely that implementing a great process management strategy will eliminate anxiety in your organization, but it can go a long way toward reducing the factors that cause it.