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Being the non-Anxious Presence: The Values of Sustainable Companies Series

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Leader comforting businessmanLeading as the non-anxious presence aligns our organizations around mission and purpose and increases our change capacity. Therefore, being the non-anxious presence makes the enterprises we lead more sustainable and capable of achieving our goals.

We are going to look at the impacts of non-anxious presence in two areas: change management, and organizational alignment.

Managing Change

“They won’t change, because they hate change.” I have heard this statement more times than I can count. I’ve heard it as an explanation (or excuse) for why an organization has gotten itself stuck. “People just don’t like change. People like routine.” This is taken as axiomatic truth: the world is defined around the fact of change-hating.

Except it is fundamentally not true.

People may hate some change, and fear other change, but it’s not because it’s change. In fact, even some of the most change-averse people look forward to change, and can be some of the most adept in making the sorts of changes that preserve their status quo.

Before you shake your head and quit reading, hear me out. I have some examples:

  • I have seen people teach themselves highly complex procedures to be able to continue use out-of-date, unsupported software they are determined to still use.
  • During the pandemic, people adapted to using online meetings to get together with family for holidays.
  • We have seen entire political movements organize and develop based on nostalgia and “bringing back” something that has otherwise faded or disappeared.

From these examples, we see that people really don’t have an issue with change, generally, per se.

Then what is the problem, exactly?

People hate loss. We fear it. Change requires loss in exchange for something else. The challenge arises when the “something else” isn’t as desirable than the status quo for whatever reason: and in this case, perception is more important than the reality.

These fears often operate at the fundamental level of our psyche. If change risks our livelihood, we fear having enough to eat, being able to provide for family, and so forth. We fear loss of face – shown to be incompetent, wrong, or foolish. Perhaps we fear loss of our reputation, carefully crafted over time. We fear anything that makes us feel vulnerable, inadequate, or superfluous.

Most organizations and leaders never name these fears out loud, so they become underlying organizational anxiety: unspoken, unacknowledged, ever-present. This tends to make people more reactive and defensive, ready to create turf they can hold on to.

When we enter into this sort of situation as a non-anxious presence, we can help others navigate change. Being non-anxious allows us to name the fears we see around us. By naming these fears, we can help people validate and respond to their existence – thus building resiliency. When people feel like what they say and do matter, they are more likely to open up to the ideas and actions of others, and become less defensive of their own territory.

Being non-anxious in change management allows us to be empathetic with others. This empathy creates space for people to resolve their emotional blocks toward the change everyone is experiencing, and move toward active participants in the work together.

Organizational Alignment

When working toward organizational alignment around a common purpose, goal, or vision, there is always change involved. Our vision is bigger than we are now; anything we do to achieve it changes what we do and how we do it. The very act of pursuing vision is itself a change.

As we work to align around our vision, mission, and purpose, we ask people to change to meet the objectives we laid out. Being non-anxious in getting people aligned helps them deal with the fears that come from the new and the unknown – and the potential for failure.

Emotional Intelligence

Sustainable companies develop non-anxious leadership as a part of their emphasis on overall emotional intelligence: the ability to be aware of emotions (ours and others’) and manage those emotions in a constructive way.

Would you like to chat about being a non-anxious presence in your enterprise? Let's find a time.

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Matthew M. Thomas

Matthew M. Thomas, EPC, is the President of the L M Thomas Group.

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