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Anxiety and Leading Change: Managing Personal Triggers to Support Your Team


As a leader, you will inevitably encounter situations that trigger feelings of anxiety. Leading change, in particular, is commonly associated with heightened uncertainty, risk, and vulnerability—all known anxiety triggers. However, openly displaying anxiety can increase stress levels among your team as they navigate change.


Today we will explore how understanding your personal anxiety triggers can help you better manage those feelings to ensure your team feels supported through transitions.


Anxiety and Change: The Research Foundation


Research has consistently shown that leading organizational change is one of the most widely recognized sources of stress and anxiety for leaders (Aitken & Schermerhorn, 1994; Hornstein, 2015). Change disrupts routines, shifts responsibilities, and introduces uncertainty—all of which activate the brain's threat detection system and stress response (Herman et al., 2022). At the same time, teams look to their leader for direction, reassurance, and emotional stability during transitions (Van Vuuren et al., 1991). Open displays of anxiety from the leader can transfer that stress to the team by making the uncertainty feel larger and less containable (Avey et al., 2010).


Fortunately, research also shows that with self-awareness and emotional regulation skills, leaders can manage their own anxiety in a way that supports their team. Leaders who understand their personal triggers of anxiety and have strategies to cope with those feelings are better able to model calm, optimistic leadership during change initiatives (Nixon et al., 2016). They can acknowledge uncertainty without alarming others and tap their reservoir of resilience to problem-solve challenges that arise (Day & Pullen, 2018). In this way, personal anxiety management becomes an essential leadership competency—particularly for driving organizational adaptation.


Understanding Your Anxiety Triggers


The first step for leaders is gaining self-awareness of what specific situations tend to activate feelings of anxiety. Common triggers may include:


  • Responsibility for outcomes that feel out of one's control

  • Evaluations and public speaking engagements

  • Conflicts or disagreements with others

  • Unstructured or ambiguous tasks

  • Threats to status or ego


To identify your personal triggers, pay attention to how your body physically and emotionally feels before, during, and after anxiety-inducing events. Notice any recurring themes in situations where tension rises, concentration lags, or distress surfaces. Also reflect on your childhood experiences and core beliefs, as early life programming often shapes adult anxiety patterns. With mindfulness and journaling over time, common themes will emerge around what types of circumstances prime your threat detection system.


Once aware of typical triggers, leaders can proactively prepare coping strategies before facing such situations. Having a mental "toolkit" at the ready helps maintain composure when anxiety does surface and role model emotional regulation for others.


Coping Strategies and Examples


There are several evidence-based approaches leaders can employ to manage anxiety triggers in a way that supports their team through change initiatives:


  • Cognitive reframing: Challenge automatic anxious thoughts by questioning their validity and focusing on evidence that disproves 'worst-case scenarios.' For example, a technology company leader navigating an acquisition acknowledged concerns about job security while emphasizing their value and track record of successful integrations.

  • Deep breathing: Taking deep breaths from the diaphragm signals the body's relaxation response and helps shift out of a threatened state. A healthcare nonprofit director led her team in deep breathing exercises before announcing a merger to promote calm amid uncertainty.

  • Visualization: Imagine anxiety-provoking events unfolding smoothly to gain perspective and feel a sense of control. A manufacturing VP scheduled one-on-one meetings to address production transition doubts, visualizing positive discussions.

  • Social support: Rely on trusted advisors to problem-solve challenges and boost confidence. An education superintendent formed a crisis management cabinet of former leaders for guidance shifting to blended learning models.

  • Self-care: Make time for relaxing activities shown to reduce cortisol like exercise, sleep, and leisure pursuits. A retail CEO prioritized weekend hikes as part of change planning health routines to recharge before implementation began.

  • Positive self-talk: Replace anxious self-criticism with encouragement and validation of strengths. A municipal government mayor affirmed resilience through past transitions when public forums illuminated infrastructure project concerns.


With regular practice, these evidenced methods enhance emotional regulation abilities and create new neuropathways for responding adaptively versus anxiously to stressors. Leaders who model such skills encourage comparable resilience in their teams facing uncertainty.


Conclusion


Leading organizational change inherently introduces uncertainty that activates the brain's threat detection response. However, openly displaying anxiety can compromise the optimism and stability teams need during transitions. Understanding personal anxiety triggers and developing coping strategies, grounded in self-awareness and scientific research, allows leaders to manage these feelings adaptively. They can acknowledge tensions around change while projecting confidence in the process. In this way, anxiety management becomes a key leadership competency—particularly for driving organizational adaptation. With diligent practice, both for personal well-being and role-modeling purposes, leaders can support team resilience through uncertainty with poised emotional regulation.


References


  • Aitken, K., & Schermerhorn, J. R. (1994). Leadership and managing innovation and change. Journal of Corporate Learning.

  • Avey, J. B., Wernsing, T. S., & Luthans, F. (2008). Can positive employees help positive organizational change? Impact of psychological capital and emotions on relevant attitudes and behaviors. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44(1), 48–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886307311470

  • Day, D. V., & Pullen, M. (2018). Leadership: Today’s theory and tomorrow’s practice. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 5, 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032117-104415

  • Herman, J. P., McKlveen, J. M., Ghosal, S., Kopp, B., Wulsin, A., Makinson, R., Scheimann, J., & Myers, B. (2022). Regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical stress response. Comprehensive Physiology, 2(1), 603–634. https://doi.org/10.1002/cphy.c160020

  • Hornstein, H. A. (2015). The integration of project management and organizational change management is now a necessity. International Journal of Project Management, 33(2), 291–298. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijproman.2014.08.005

  • Nixon, R. D. V., Harrington, S. M., & Parker, D. (2012). Leadership performance is significant to project success or failure: A critical analysis. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, 61(2), 204–216. https://doi.org/10.1108/17410401211194699

  • Van Vuuren, M., De Jong, M. D. T., & Seydel, E. R. (1991). Direct and indirect effects of supervisor communication on organizational commitment. Journal of Psychology, 125(1), 125-31.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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