The anxiety disorder of organizations

I’ve been educated as a psychologist. I learned that people with anxiety disorders want to have control over everything. Imagine someone with mysophobia (pathological fear of contamination and germs). When they feel anxious, they want to solve that anxiety by washing their hands. That’s what we psychologists call control behavior. The problem in an anxiety disorder is that the anxious feeling keeps coming back and you’ll need to wash your hands time and again. You capability to handle anxiety lowers, since you always try to immediately get rid of your tensions. In the end, someone with an anxiety disorder keeps avoiding or controlling situations to prevent or remove the anxiety.

Nowadays as an organizational psychologist, I see exactly the same urge at work. When someone makes a mistake (as will happen, sooner or later), the immediate reaction is control. We need protocols to prevent that mistake from happening. We need checkups and final checkups. And we need to follow the rules, so mistakes are not our fault, but the consequence of following the rules. Which isn’t as bad, apparently. Example: when my fiancée and I bought a home last year, our mortgage advisor needed to check of all the boxes — on income, savings, pensions, etc. Even though some of these boxes were non-applicable or irrelevant for our situation (since I work as an entrepreneur), they needed to be checked. Because if he didn’t check them, and something goes wrong during the thirty or so years my mortgage runs, he made a mistake and it’s his fault.

What we forget, is the same as what someone with anxiety disorder forgets. The short term effect of more control is positive: lower anxiety, better knowledge and safer behavior. No germs, no mistakes. But the long term effects are negative. Overregulation, less initiative, continuous stress and alertness, and only two responses to difficult situations: run or control. Perhaps you’ll recognize this wait-and-see mentality, where responsibilities are never taken but instead always deferred to managers and rules. The effect is a frozen organization in which learning by doing is impeded.

So, what to do about it? Perhaps we can treat this organizational disorder just the same as the individual problem. Exposure to a certain degree of uncertainty is key. Allow room for making and reporting mistakes. When stakes are high (e.g. in a hospital or with NASA), of course, extra control is totally worth it. But we need to take into account whether the outcome is worth the extra control. If the possible mistake is easily solved, get on with it and try. And we need to make sure that all our control mechanisms don’t add up to something unworkable. Control of your work is supposed to improve outcomes, not to clip your wings.

We need to get a bit less anxious and take some risks. And leaders need to reassure employees that that’s ok.

Make a connection

If you think this article was interesting, please subscribe to my personal blog.