Anxiety, Communication and Leadership

In my post Once You Understand Emotion, Motivation Is Easy, I laid the link between Deci and Ryan's Self-Determination Theory and current emotions.

In this post, I will briefly expand these ideas and then focus on a specific emotion from a communication and leadership point of view: Anxiety.

Self-Determination Theory and the basic psychological need for safety

Self-Determination Theory states that the fulfillment of three psychological needs influences job satisfaction: Mastery, connection, and autonomy. If we extend these needs into the social arena generally, the need for autonomy and connection may be translated one-on-one as being essential for well-being. Social mastery needs some elaboration: It has to do with competency in terms of being able to anticipate others’ behavior, reacting appropriately to this behavior and the ability to influence others. In short, it has to do with a feeling of being in control or the basic psychological need for safety. Bear in mind these are psychological needs, not material needs.


When people feel safe, connected and autonomous they generally experience a sense of well-being. When one of these three needs is threatened, certain emotions will arise. When safety is at stake, an anxious reaction is a natural response, leading the body to prepare itself for action: The so-called Fight-Flight-Freeze response. Anxiety is a very basic emotion and has a positive intention: It prevents you from doing silly things, things which could endanger your existence. The survival instinct is so strong, that almost all sensory perception is first filtered by an organ in the midbrain: The amygdala. This organ is responsible for our so-called negativity bias: We first need to scan the environment for potentially dangerous situations, as these have priority. So anxiety really is an adaptive emotion, it ensures we survive. It only becomes a problem when its intensity isn’t appropriate for the actual situation at hand.


On a very basic level, we are social beings because we need each other. Exclusion from the group that surrounds us is a potentially dangerous situation, something borne out by research: When a person ventilates a view which is different from the majority of the group, their amygdala react. They react irrespective whether such a person actually experiences fear when standing up for their view. Also when they feel excluded for what or whom they are, this will lead to anxiety.

Anxiety and communication

In the same way, anxiety has its role to play in communication. In the first instance, it prevents us from saying silly things, things which will obviously lead to our exclusion from that group we would like to belong to. On the other hand it may also inhibit us, prevent us from saying the things that should be said (when others cross our boundaries, for example), prevent us from making contact with others (think of shyness, for example) or simply cause us to provide politically correct responses so as not to stand out too much from the group. In a team this can be detrimental, it means this team member’s expertise is unavailable for the group. When several team members don’t speak freely, groupthink rears its head, sometimes even with catastrophic implications.

So what can you as a leader do when dealing with an anxious team member? Firstly you will need to be able to recognize an anxious response: eyes wide (or wider than normal: both eyebrows lift), the tightening of the lip, the rapid breaking of eye-contact and moving uncomfortably are tell-tales. As people seldom feel competent in an atmosphere which doesn’t feel safe, your task is to ensure you provide a space in which your team members may speak freely, without the (perceived) danger of being excluded.

A safe space

So what can you do precisely to create that safe space where even anxious team members are stimulated to speak more freely? Practicing Observational Listening is a good start: By concentrating on what the team member understood by your message (rather than what you meant), you see their current emotions more clearly and can respond to their emotions more sensitively. Also by being a role model, showing for all to see that you are an empathic person of integrity who treats others with respect. And by displaying some of your own vulnerability in the appropriate use of self-disclosure. Thereby you are the safe space where even anxious team members feel safe enough to contribute.

Note: The academic version of the book Observational Listening is already available. The self-help version is expected around the end of 2017.

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