a hand scraping against a window
A challenging question from a strong leader can added even more anxiety to anxiety-filled workplaces. PHOTO: Alexander Lam

We live in times of accelerated change and rising complexity. Disruption is everywhere. Politics at home and abroad are in a state of upheaval. In nearly every aspect of modern life, certainty and predictability are elusive.

In short, these are anxious times. People everywhere are nervous and stressed out. And American’s are especially susceptible. A 2012 study by the World Health Organization famously concluded that America is the most anxious country in the world.

And few would argue that things have gotten better since 2012.

Your Team Is at Risk

No matter how dedicated and capable they are, your team is not immune. They can’t be. And whether you recognize it or not, their growing anxiety is impacting your business.

New research published in the Journal of Neuroscience earlier this year makes the consequences clear: anxiety leads to bad decision-making. Specifically, it interrupts the brain’s capacity to ignore distractions. And in these non-stop, fast-paced times, your team is facing more distractions than ever—and being asked to make more decisions, as well.

It’s a dangerous combination.

So Many MarTech Companies

Take the marketing world, for example. A wave of new technology companies has sprung up in recent years to serve the needs of modern marketers. According to chiefmartec.com, the number of these companies has increased by a staggering 2200 percent between 2011 and 2016.

Of course, each one of these companies has a sales and marketing engine pointed squarely at your marketing team, pushing them hard to make decisions. If you don’t believe me, ask your marketing director how many cold calls, unsolicited emails and LinkedIn messages they fend off in a given week.

So Many Channels, Tactics and Methods

That's just the technology side of things. The number of channels, tactics and methods that modern marketers can choose from is now greater than ever.

What's worse, your team does not have a roadmap or a set of established best practices to fall back on. Because all of this is changing. All the time.

And then there’s the hype.

Flooded by Buzz

Buzz around innovative new tech, in particular, has grown to epic proportions in recent years. This has created a corporate version of the FOMO (fear of missing out) that keeps us all glued to our mobile devices day and night.

It’s also magnified some long-standing sources of marketing anxiety. In particular, the nagging fear of being left behind by a fast-moving competitor.

Crucially, this hype is no longer confined to the industry press. It’s gone mainstream. From Pokémon Go to virtual reality, Facebook Live to Snapchat Spectacles, we’re all caught up in it.

No one is immune. And this is where you come in. You and — in particular — the kind of questions you pose to your team.

How Leaders Amplify Anxiety

Let me explain. A CEO I met with recently shared an anecdote about a lesson he’d learned the hard way about the power of simple questions. For many years, he had a habit of responding to hype about trendy new marketing tech and tactics by asking his team a simple question: What are we doing about this?

It’s a common enough question, nothing unusual. But a few years later, he’s come to realize the error of his ways.

His intentions were certainly good. He wanted to make sure his team were paying attention to the market, keeping an eye on the competition and staying open to new opportunities.

But such a challenging question directly from a strong leader — no matter how well intentioned — had a very different effect. It actually added even more anxiety to the equation.

As a result, it led to some very distracted decision-making. Think early investments in faddish new social media platforms. Expensive new mobile apps with disappointing results. You get the picture.

Quick Action vs. Thoughtful Strategy

Over time, these effects grew even more insidious. His simple question — repeated over time — eventually created a short-term mindset that became part of the culture. A habitual bias towards quick action instead of a more thoughtful, strategic approach.

The faster the team went, the worse the anxiety got. The result was a vicious cycle that seemed hard to break. Until, that is, he changed the way he phrased the question. Now he asks it this way: Do we need to do anything about this?

This simple change in phrasing had a nearly immediate effect. It empowered the team to slow down and think critically, to shift out of action mode and adopt a strategic mindset.

Instead of adding to their anxiety, it empowered them to rise above it. Ultimately, it helped them overcome distractions and make stronger decisions on behalf of the business.

The lesson here is simple but vital Strong leaders have a disproportionately strong influence on the way their teams think and work.

So in this anxious age, be sure to phrase your questions carefully.