Dear Annie: I love my job, but my boss is driving me nuts. He’s always overreacting to the smallest setbacks and going straight to the worst-case scenario in any situation. The latest example, among countless others: My team made a tiny error in some work we did for a client. We apologized and fixed it immediately and, although the client was mildly annoyed at first, he was fine with the correction and we all moved on with our lives.
But not my boss. He freaked out and started worrying that we were going to lose the account, which led him to offer the client a bunch of extra work at no charge. It’s not the extra work that bothers me, it’s the unnecessary waste of resources, and the fact that he always reacts in this panicky way. I’m afraid that it will damage his career — and mine, since we’re seen as closely linked. My teammates just shrug it off, but is there anything we can do (besides find another boss)? — Just Jack
Dear J.J.: Unfortunately, your boss has plenty of company. It’s not for nothing that anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines — including Xanax and Valium — are among the most prescribed medications, not just in the U.S., but worldwide. The National Institutes of Health reported in 2008 that 1 in 20 Americans were regular users of benzodiazepines, and that was based on data collected before the Great Recession had sunk its teeth in.
Anxiety is also among the most-studied of garden-variety neuroses, and some of the research offers useful clues on why people “go straight to the worst-case scenario,” as you put it. An article in the current issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, for instance, reports on a study that found a chemical glitch in the higher-order decision-making circuitry of anxious people’s brains that causes them to respond to everything as if it were a catastrophe.
In a nutshell, highly anxious people have “difficulty using information about whether the situations we face daily are stable or not, and deciding how to react,” says Sonia Bishop, who teaches psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and was the study’s lead author. That can make people interpret, say, a lovers’ quarrel as a doomed relationship, or any small change at work as a threat to their careers. “It’s a bit like being Alice in Wonderland,” Bishop adds, “trying to work out if the same rules still apply” every time uncertainty arises.
You can’t be your boss’s shrink (nor should you try), but you can probably alleviate some of his distress, so that he’s less inclined to panic. Since anxiety sufferers have significant trouble dealing with uncertainty, minimize it as much as you can. “Sometimes very anxious people don’t see the forest for the trees,” says Ben Dattner , a psychologist who heads up New York City executive coaching firm Dattner Consulting. “So point out the forest.”
That is, you can “provide an overall context that supports reality. Acknowledge his anxiety — don’t be dismissive of the feeling — without supporting the conclusion” that, for instance, you’re losing that client, Dattner says. “State the facts as they are.” Since the client you mention is satisfied now, and has given no clue that they’re about to jump ship, say that.
You may have to say it more than once. “Anxiety can be contagious, but don’t let your manager’s anxiety rub off on you,” Dattner advises. “Stay calm.” Luckily, calm can be catching, too.
Another tactic that might help is to “ask for a meeting to discuss preventing future errors of the same kind,” he says. “If you and your team can come up with some safeguards” — maybe having an extra pair of eyes proofread your work before you show it to clients from now on, or whatever specific steps you think would help — “that should reassure your boss, too.
“You’ll probably never eliminate all errors and be 100% perfect at everything forever, of course,” Dattner adds. “But any steps you can take to make your boss feel less at-risk will help him stop panicking.”
One more thought: You don’t mention how long your boss has been like this, but in his coaching work with executives, Dattner has often found that “managers who suddenly start showing anxiety symptoms very often have something else going on in their lives — some major stress like trouble at home, illness, divorce — that’s making them feel out of control,” he says. “If your boss has just recently started ‘overreacting,’ try to tactfully find out if he’s okay.” If you possibly can, encourage him to talk to someone about what’s going on. There may be much more at stake here than simply his career — or yours. Good luck.
Talkback: Have you ever had to deal with an over-anxious boss, or colleague? How did you handle it? Leave a comment below.
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