Having performance conversations with an anxious employee
Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees dealing with anxiety.
One of our team members struggles with anxiety and is in a client-facing position. Whenever something doesn't go as planned, they shut down. I want them to know they're supported, but also that it's an important part of the role to be able to react well to problems and help the team tackle it. How can I do this?
The best way to approach this is to position it as what it is, an opportunity to address two problems at once.
When your team member struggles to cope with the unexpected challenge in a project and is unable to help the team find a solution everyone is losing because they are feeling less confidence in themselves which will carry over until the next time it happens, and the team are not getting the guidance they need either.
Coming at this from a granular perspective might help to really identify what’s going on.
You might ask your team member, “When something goes wrong and you find yourself closing down, what are you worried about?”. If you can find out what’s at the root of the fear, you will have a better chance of working with them to mitigate it. If they say, “I start to worry that I can’t do the job properly,” or “I start thinking that I must have made a mistake that led to the problem,” you can address that specific concern and work with them on the alternative ways in which they might be able to reframe the thought.
Impress upon your team member the fact that facing up to anxiety is the best way to overcome it and that by working with you to find a different way of reacting to the difficulties that crop up in projects they will be fulfilling their job more effectively and managing their anxiety more efficiently at the same time.
Often managing someone with anxiety requires some tough love. They need to know you are going to do whatever is needed to help them address the problem but that you are not about to let them avoid it. That is good leadership and your team member will thank you for it.
Have a calm conversation
Sounds like they are struggling to cope with uncertainty and emotionally regulate effectively. This means that they will be experiencing a huge ‘threat’ to their safety (in this case, a change in plans) and then this spike in emotion stays high, cutting them off from the capacity to think clearly and engage. Sounds really hard for both parties.
It would be useful for both parties to chat through the situation after the event (when both are calm) and explore what helps and doesn’t help in these events. For you to understand what they need and what they are capable of doing/not doing, and for them to understand what the business needs. There could be a number of reasons why this may be happening (or a mixture).
They may feel unrealistically high demands from the business so experience any change of plan as dangerous (“I will fail and this will have bad consequences”). This can be soothed by colleagues and senior levels being mindful of how things are requested and creating a psychologically safe place to work where actions aren’t punished but learnt from. So being aware of critical voices or unrealistic demands and instead offering space, support and understanding. E.g offering this person adjustment time where they take themselves off for five minutes to find a calmer space.
They have unrealistic demands and rules on themselves which create strong reactions. I would recommend signposting them to a therapist to explore these reactions and build in some calming resources. (i.e. improve their emotional regulation skills).
They may be wired to experience the world in a more rigid way (e.g. autism). In this case, can adjustments be made for their responses (can they leave and come up with solutions later instead?) or does this activity truly demand someone who can respond with more immediacy? It’s really hard as we are all wired differently with different life experiences so we all react to the world in unique ways. If they could benefit from some training or exploration to improve their regulation skills then this is something the company can offer. If they aren’t capable of this, can adjustments be made by either party?
Sounds like a little more exploration is required to start to build a plan to support this person and keep the business needs in mind.
Share personal experiences
I'm hearing that you want to offer support with how your employee is feeling, but also to help them meet the requirements of their role. You can do this by:
- Telling the team member (in private) that you want to support them. You can ask them if they have any ideas about what they need and what is difficult for them. It’s likely that they are judging themselves for making mistakes and fear a negative outcome. This may be because of a previous negative work experience or relationship experience.
- Reassuring the team member that mistakes will happen and can be learned from. Help the team member to have a growth mindset where they understand that they will learn and grow gradually over time. They don’t need to be an immediate expert, and this is not possible anyway.
- Remind the team member about the problem-solving aspect of the role and check whether they need more guidance and support around problem-solving. They may need more training or practice away from clients and the rest of the team.
- It might help to share your own experience with coping with mistakes or anxiety, so the employee knows they are not alone.
- You could suggest that the team member access Spill if they want to speak to someone outside of work who is knowledgeable about managing anxiety. There is often a stigma attached to therapy even today so aim to normalise accessing therapy. If you have had it yourself or know someone who has had it and found it useful you may wish to mention this.
- Help the team member to set realistic and achievable goals for their progress and development. Have patience. Just because things are not going well now it does not mean they cannot change.
It is normal to worry about an employee who struggles in their role. Make sure you follow policies and procedures around mental health and performance (check out the ACAS website for more information) and if you notice team members responding inappropriately to the employee encourage them to have compassion and understanding.