Performance Anxiety

Performance AnxietytcbrPDF normal

Your people are insecure. What are you going to do about it?

By Vadim Liberman

Performance Anxiety

Vadim Liberman is senior editor of TCB Review and is too insecure to list his work-related anxieties here.

It's hard to do your best work, to be truly engaged, when you're feeling insecure. And your people do feel insecure.

This apprehension isn't necessarily the kind you might assume, though. For years, workers felt—justifiably—as though their companies treated them as disposable. Not so much anymore. Three-quarters of us feel secure keeping our jobs, according to a recent report by staffing and recruiting firm Randstad. Nowadays, we don't worry as much that today might be our last in the office. (Even if it is, we're more optimistic that a first day awaits us elsewhere.)

“There's been an alleviation of a lot of economically driven pressure on employees and an uptick in confidence in the job market,” says Ken Oehler, global engagement practice leader at Aon Hewitt, “but by no means do employees feel like they're out of the woods.”

Why not? What's lurking in the woods?

Serpentine branches of frustration, confusion, tension, and stress—that's what. They strangle our confidence so that while we are more upbeat about keeping our jobs, we are anxious about actually doing the work every day. Because the scope of our jobs keeps shifting and expanding, we endlessly fret about and grapple with the what, where, when, how, and even why of our work. More responsibilities—both new and old—and less time to do them, lack of organizational and job clarity, and emerging IT challenges often leave our heads spinning and throbbing. Forget about work/life balance; we can't even find balance at work—with so much coming at us, it's hard to focus on doing a good job.

Call it performance anxiety.

The belief—the hope—that we would feel significantly better about our work selves once we stopped panicking about our next paychecks was just that. Maybe the darker threat to security never was a pink slip. External forces concerning financial markets, political uncertainty, regulations, competition—all beyond an organization's, let alone an employee's, control—don't unsettle workers nearly as much as various wrecking balls that businesses swing internally.

Buried in the comments section of an hrbartender.com blog post, the Hay Group's Mark Royal and Tom Agnew, authors of The Enemy of Engagement, get straight to the point. They write: “In our view, there is a silent killer lurking in many companies. We're talking about workplace frustration, which can undermine the energy, enthusiasm, and performance of your best talent. . . . We're not referring to demotivated or turned off employees. That group is likely to be too checked out to experience personal stress or conflict over their inability to get things done. Rather, we're talking about employees who are engaged with goals and objectives and enthusiastic about making a difference—but are held back by jobs that do not suit them or work environments that get in their way.”

“Insecurity doing a job can lead you into a death spiral,” adds Gary Magenta, senior VP at Root Inc., a management consultancy. “When you're under stress, you make decisions in haste, being reactive instead of proactive. It's an absolute barrier to job performance.” Indeed, insecurity negatively correlates with turnover, creativity, innovation, beneficial risk-taking, productivity, happiness, satisfaction, engagement, and profitability. (Granted, causal links remain blurry, partly because even the best minds—yes, including the one penning this article—often use, misuse, and confuse notions such as happiness and engagement. Slipping these variables—bloated by as many definitions as there are consultancies—into equations between insecurity and performance only further muddies the issue.)

Now, we can have academic debates about whether stress leads to poor performance or vice versa. Or we can forget chickens and eggs, while Neil Morrison, group HR director for U.K. and International Companies at Penguin Random House, sums it up best: “Insecurity leads to more insecurity.” And if you need a research report to prove that the feeling of not being able to do your job competently is bad for business, you have scarier problems plaguing you.

Rolls of Roles

Dispirited with their place in an organization, some people fear not losing but keeping their jobs. “When a company is not successful, or if people are in roles that don't fit them, if you don't reorganize, the implication is that you're reticent to do what needs to be done, which creates a sense of insecurity,” says Jim Link, Randstad North America's managing director of HR. “Inaction can drive fear as much as action.”

True, but maybe there's been too much action. Since the 1990s, companies have regularly reshuffled their structure and workforce: adding, subtracting, dividing, or multiplying departments, jobs, and tasks, and frequently leaving workers uncertain about where they fit into the latest equation.

“Often, whenever there's something new that gets management's attention—a new book, a new technology—it gets acted on,” says management consultant Russell Bishop. “What rarely happens is a not-very-sophisticated but important analysis where you ask, ‘What should we start doing? What should we stop doing? What should we continue doing?' People feel overwhelmed by all the pieces of work, many of which may no longer have value.”

“Reorgs are often based on whims,” adds Peter Cappelli, the Wharton's School's George W. Taylor Professor of Management. “Even if they do something useful in the longer term, they disrupt lines of communication and innovation; they inhibit getting work done. It's unfortunate that there is no evidence that what employers are doing even helps their organizations.” The frequent shifts have left many companies on shaky ground: According to Gallup, 41 percent of American workers say they don't know what their employer stands for and what differentiates its brand from others.

Sure, change is tough on people. But change is rarely the problem—change management is. In other words, the issue is management.

“In a lot of cases, companies don't think things through, which leads to confusion and lack of clarity of expectations,” says Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist for workplace management and wellbeing. You can't feel confident about doing something when you're unsure exactly what that something should be. For instance, after receiving a laundry list of new responsibilities, one employee sought clarifications from his manager about some tasks and raised red flags about procedures related to others. With a quizzical look, his boss replied, “Oh.”

Oh?

“Oh, I guess we never thought of that.” Oh boy! (No need to shame the company publicly.)

When your employer plays pinball with your career, bumping you between positions, springing new tasks on you and stripping you of others, the fatigue alone makes it hard to strike targets. Plus, is the new job actually a promotion—or a demotion? By the time you figure out the game, the corporate pinball machine will send you rolling in a new direction. Then your employer wonders why your performance isn't where it should be, when actually, it's exactly where it should be.

“In most cases, there's an organizational failure rather than an individual one,” Neil Morrison says. “If people are poor performers, they either don't know that they aren't doing what's required of them or the organization has placed them in roles that they aren't capable of achieving.”

Ah, but new roles mean new opportunities, says your VP of HR. Don't they?

Workers appreciate chances to grow skills, it's true, but one talent many people already have is spotting B.S. Real opportunities come offered, not forced—like when managers learn of their new titles, responsibilities, and reporting relationships via companywide blast email. (Yes, this actually happens.)

People are concerned about doing their jobs because they feel like generic cogs in a machine. Displacement is the new disposability when it comes to fear at work. Indeed, according to Cardiff University's Skills and Employment Survey, more than half of all employees are anxious about their job status—that is, they fear shifts into roles that involve less use of their skills, less say over how work is done, less interesting work, or less pay.

It's not even that employees can't deal with a new plate of responsibilities—it's that that they must now juggle many new and old plates, each piled with more tasks and less time to do them. It's enough to spoil anyone's appetite for work. “If every time you close something, there are twenty things lining up underneath it, you don't get that burst of satisfaction that you need to end up valuing your job,” says Ken Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at the Families and Work Institute. A swollen to-do list coupled with lack of job clarity can also cause people to default to concentrating on easiest, rather than most important, tasks.

Additionally, as organizations have gotten leaner, consolidation of tasks has intensified the speed and pressure under which we work. For example, in the United Kingdom, research from Cardiff shows that the workweek has fallen from thirty-eight hours in 1997 to thirty-four hours in 2012. Meanwhile, 23 percent of British employees in 1997 said they worked at high speeds, compared to 40 percent in 2012. During that same time span, the numbers of people reporting that they were working harder and had high-pressure jobs also rose.

Let's pause to contemplate this.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.