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Anxiety = Uncertainty X Powerlessness

May 23, 2013, 10:00 AM

Anxiety is the most prevalent emotion in most organizations in the United States today.  

Anxiety has two component parts.  It’s what you don't know and what you can't control. So anxiety equals uncertainty times powerlessness. 

So the way you could work this equation is the following.  Think of something that makes you anxious and then create four columns.  The first column is what I do know about this thing that's making me anxious.  The second column is what I don't know.  The third column is what is what I can influence.  And the fourth column is what I can't influence.  

Once you’ve spent 15-20 minutes making a list, you may be surprised to find that 75-80 percent of us, when we make our lists, find that we have more things under columns one and three, the assets on this anxiety balance sheet, than we do in two and four, those that are the liabilities.  And once you realize that, that makes you feel like, "Oh, I’ve got some things I do know and that I can control."  

But more importantly, you can look at column two and say "What is that in column two, what I don't know, how could I actually learn that?"  Maybe you think you're going to lose your job, so maybe you could ask your boss. Maybe you think your spouse is cheating, so maybe you could ask them.  The truth is we don't want to do that, because it’s like "I don't want to learn that!"

But there's a fascinating study that was done 20 years ago that showed that when people had the choice between getting an electric shock that's twice as painful as one they might get in the next 24 hours but it will happen without them knowing, sort of randomly, if you had to choose the twice as painful shock now versus half as painful in the next 24 hours but you don't know when it’s coming, most of us would choose the twice as painful shock now.  So it’s a lesson to us, as leaders, that quite often it’s best to actually deliver the bad news rather than to let people stew in their anxiety juices.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 


Anxiety = Uncertainty X Pow...

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