Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Using “Worry” to Your Advantage

What keeps you up at night? Agonizing over some thorny decision? Overthinking possible outcomes? Tormenting over the possibility of failure? You are not alone. The hyper-competitive work environment in which we live feeds our imaginations overtime, and, hence, our worries.

The great Samuel Johnson, a chronic worrier, labeled worry a “disease of the imagination.” We are capable of imagining the worst, allowing a stream of dark thoughts to crowd our mind. Is it worth it? Is worry its own reward? If we fret about an upcoming presentation in front of a large, forbidding audience and it turns out well, do we attribute it to all that effort we invested in imagining the worst?

Dr. J. Gerald Suarez
Great leaders and strategists use worry to imagine potential implications and consequences of their decisions. By doing so, they are able to anticipate what can go wrong and design better plans. Successful entrepreneurs masterfully use worry to sense, respond, anticipate and effectively deal with uncertainty and risk. Other executives see worry as a catalyst to prevent obsolescence or stagnation.

However, when worry escalates and becomes omnipresent, it can lead to postponement, paralysis, fear, distress, all forms of dysfunction, and even medical problems.

How can we manage our worries? Recoding our apprehensions each day is a good way to start. Keep an inventory of worries and become mindful of the things that we can influence and the ones beyond our control. Revisiting our journal will help us assess the actual danger from the imagined peril. We may find that it was never as bad as we imagined it to be. Get the facts and look for evidence since worry is often rooted in misinformation. Avoid the paralysis of perfectionism and learn from failure. Stay socially engaged and share your worries with your executive coach or a trusted colleague. Doing so, can help us see our worries within a new context and help us calm down.

Can we worry less but worry better? Yes, but first we must acknowledge that worry is a type of thinking that is self-imposed. Since worry results from our own mental creations, we must shift our thinking in a serious way, even turn it upside down, and instead imagine positive outcomes, and believe in them. It is our choice: We can be immobilized by fear of failure or motivated by a vision of success, even if success doesn’t actually pan out as we wished. At least we can sleep at night.

 J. Gerald Suarez is professor of practice in systems thinking and design and a fellow of the Center for Leadership Innovation and Change at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is an executive coach and author of “Leader Of One: Shaping Your Future through Imagination and Design.” See also a longer version on this topic in The Washington Post.

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