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Managing Systemic Anxiety: Fourteen Tools of a Grounding Leader

By Lynn M. Acquafondata

How can we lead without feeling anxiety?  We can’t. No one lives life or leads anything, whether it is a congregation, an organization, or a family, without some anxiety. 

These Tools of a Grounding Leader can help us to lower anxiety. When used by anyone who has a leadership role in groups or organizations, the benefits spread through the system. Begin by remembering the mnemonic: AS (we) STRIVE TO LEAD


Awareness of Power DynamicsWhen these dynamics are not acknowledged, named, and managed, they can cause high levels of anxiety in congregations and other organizations. We can lower anxiety as leaders by recognizing the power differentials between people in any given situation, and making conscious choices about when and how to use one’s own power. Leaders can raise awareness by naming power dynamics in the organization we lead and help others to negotiate and mange those power differentials. For more detailed discussion on managing power dynamics see my articles on Weighted Triangles. (In congregationsIn families.) As with many of these tools, anxiety sometimes increases during the process of changing relational dynamics. It will decrease over the long term.

Self-awareness/Self-reflection: Self-awareness starts by observing ourselves and noticing our own responses and feelings (external and internal). Next we can use self-reflection to figure out why we respond the way we do. Reflect on what current or past events might have triggered a particular reaction. There are a wide variety of tools, classes, and resources to help improve these skills. Sometimes reaching out to an outside professional such as a counselor or spiritual director can be beneficial. We can always learn more about ourselves and our responses. This is a lifetime project.

Synthesize: Figure out how seemingly diverse factors and perspectives might fit together in complementary ways, rather than assuming some aspects are wrong. Use a “This And That” approach rather than an “Either/Or” approach.

Think before responding: Instead of saying the first thing that comes to mind, take time to think things through and make thoughtful decisions about when and how to respond. Thinking things through prevents quick reactive responses that shift the tension onto others, or push others away, giving the false impression that the problem has “gone away”. In order to think before responding we need to manage our own internal anxiety.

Rest plenty, don’t work all the time. We all function best as individuals when we keep a balance of work and relaxation time. Congregations, workplaces, and other organizations also benefit from maintaining a balance between the work of the organization, time for socializing/connecting with others, and time for everyone (staff, employees, volunteers and/or members) to attend to their own lives and interests outside of the organization.

Invite diverse viewpoints: Instead of seeing diverse viewpoints as threatening, reach out and connect with people who hold different viewpoints than one’s own, and encourage the organization as a whole to do this as well. Hearing other people share perspectives that are different from our own may trigger personal anxiety, especially when we allow ourselves to see some merit in a different perspective. If we acknowledge the truth in another perspective, we might have to change ourselves. Grounding leaders face our own discomfort, manage our personal anxieties, and help others to do the same.

Vision and clear goals: Define who we are as a leaders and set clear goals. Work to define clear vision and goals for the congregation or organization you lead. When people know what they have committed to, they can focus their energies in a defined direction rather than dispersing their energy in unhealthy ways (such as those characterized by the signs of an anxious system).

Examine/observe: Pay close attention to the actions and reactions of everyone involved in a situation including ourselves. Notice verbal and non-verbal communication. Study all that is going on around us as leaders with a sense of being a curious, outside observer. If we feel a sense of worry or unease, notice that. If we see signs of anxiety in others, note that. Don’t ignore things that make us uncomfortable, or push aside the possibilities we don’t like. Examine all we can observe around and within us. Model this approach for others.

Take responsibility for one’s role: This applies to us as leaders, and to groups within a congregation or organization, and to the organization as a whole. We ask ourselves (or our group as a whole) how we contributed to a situation, and what we could do differently to change the situation now. When appropriate we acknowledge this out loud to others. We avoid blame.

Options and multiple possibilities: Realize that there are many ways of looking at a situation and many options for responses. Consider and examine many possibilities, even ones that seem silly or that contradict our initial way of viewing a situation. A playful, brainstorming approach will help reduce or eliminate anxiety around new or unusual possibilities.

Listen without judgement: We try to understand other people’s perspectives without imposing one’s own view, and without trying to convince the other person to change their view. As grounding leaders we respect people who share perspectives different from our own and try to learn from others. This does not mean we have to agree.

Expect others to disagree, speak up anyway: Be clear about the value of one’s own perspective so that we can speak up even when expecting others to disagree. Be ready to control any inner anxiety this may cause. If we can stay calm, the whole system benefits.

Assume multiple layers:  We look for multiple dimensions and interlocking aspects in any given situation. Things are rarely exactly as they appear on the surface. We are aware of how various factors might influence a situation including: social location, roles, power dynamics, previous occurrences, or anticipated events.  

Decisive and clear: We are clear about who we are and what we believe. We develop a vision and goals that reflect our core values. We allow ourselves to choose positions or options and move forward. At the same time we are ready to step away from positions or options we cannot support. We aren’t afraid to explain ourselves clearly, even when others may disagree. Initially we may feel some agitation as we do this. In the long run clarity helps us and those around us to focus, and decreases anxiety.

AS (we) STRIVE TO LEAD: When we as leaders remember this mnemonic and strive to live out these approaches, the whole congregation or organization benefits.

But keep in mind that these are ideals to work towards. Grounding ourselves and our organizations is a process. We all have days and time periods when we do better or worse. We all have areas we excel at and areas we need to work on.

If we want to manage our anxiety, and the lower anxiety of the systems we lead, it is important to notice when we are already using these tools and actions, then work to incorporate those that we aren’t currently using.0367272001573181177.jpg

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Edited by Johanna Bond

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