Dealing with Business Anxiety

Do you ever feel anxious meeting new people, be it customers, peers, supervisors, stakeholders? Do you even feel anxious meeting with a group of colleagues you already know? Does the thought of speaking up in meetings, lunch breaks and office hallways make you feel nervous? If any of these are true for you, keep reading to discover a simple set of techniques that have somewhat helped me overcome these challenges.

For the impatient ones, here’s the summary:

  1. Know thy purpose – prepare for a conversation/meeting upfront.
  2. Be good – towards yourself, other people involved in the conversation, and beyond.
  3. Radical acceptance – be willing to accept whatever outcome might happen.
  4. Hoping for the best – keep your spirits high.

Know thy purpose

I was sweating, could not sit still, and my heart was pounding, as the thoughts like “Is he going to think I am stupid?” ran through my head. This was in 2018 in Belgrade, Serbia. I was having a lunch meeting with a guy that would later become my personal coach, when he noticed I seemed to be nervous. He asked “what’s up man?” and I said “I feel anxious about meeting new people”. He asked “why are you meeting with me right now?” and I said “to learn from you”. Then he said “keep that in mind as your goal for this conversation – to learn something new. As soon as you see you are not getting that out of the conversation – feel free to leave”. Just like that, the panic subsided, and so I have used this trick ever since.

It is not guaranteed to work for everybody, as all people are different, but I hope it will work for you. The basic premise is to know why you are entering an interaction with someone. When anxiety kicks in, remember the purpose with which you are meeting. Evaluate what you need to do to meet that purpose, or if it is time to give up, get up, and leave.

Another thing to think about is to have a “grand purpose”, something that transcends the individual moments of our lives. Think something along the lines of what I wrote in the article titled “Introspection via the Who-am-I document. More about this below.

Be good

Oftentimes, I used to think – “am I going to be perceived as overly selfish, or greedy, am I asking for too much”? This has been a source of anxiety for me in business settings. I am ambitious, I have always been. It is a natural tendency for many people I guess, including myself. I like a good challenge and a reward. Alas, somewhere along my journey, the idea that I am a greedy, or overly-ambitious, self-centered ass, creeped into my head. And I am grateful for that, even though this self-doubt has caused tons of emotional pain, such as anxiety, and noise in my thinking and behavior. I dare to say, that little voice might have been correct, if not compassionate. Eventually that ill self-criticism helped me move forward in my journey.

This thought manifested as anxiety at work mostly because I would receive feedback that I am abrasive, selfish, demanding, rude, and such (all true, at the time at least), without being able to understand exactly why or how to improve. The good thing is that, more or less, I have learned to receive feedback to heart, and contemplate these things. My “ambitious” spirit could not handle that I am operating at a “sub-par” quality as a person. Hence, mission accepted! The goal – improve your character. The reward? Feel better about yourself, and be at peace. Wonderful!

For example… It was hard for me to “influence” others (politely). Even now I struggle with this. It’s not easy to break away from old habits. So again, in 2018 I established a mentoring relationship at work, with a senior leader of the company. I asked about “how do I learn to influence others, efficiently and without anxiety?”. My mentor quickly recommended that I check out the book titled Influence without Authority (rated 3.6/5 on GoodReads). This book is not something I would recommend verbatim, but eventually it did help me get toward the mindset I am happy with now. The premise of the book is that “if you want something from someone, you have to give something that they value in return”. Also known as “quid-pro-quo”, or “something-for-something” or “this-for-that”. In retrospective, this is not quite my favorite mindset to live by, but, at least it’s a step forward from my previous mindset, which was more along the lines of “quid-because-I-say-so”. Quite arrogant from the less-experienced Srecko, I know. That arrogance still lurks in me, like a dark shadow, and it still gets out in the open when I am under stress. Alas!

That quid-pro-quo mindset made me realize the next step in my “business-grand-awakening” – and that is simply to be in service of others. Quid-pro-nothing. Now, when I look into a business, or something that needs to be organized, influenced and so on – I don’t do it because I expect a “special reward” for it. I do it because I figure that in the grand-scheme-of-things, that is the best course for everybody involved. It’s optimal, not just for me, but for you, him, her, them. Literally what it should mean to be a team player. We all win or lose together as a team, as a company and so on.

I know this sounds cliche. Give it a try, it might work for you too. Different strokes for different folks. It is not guaranteed to work for everybody, but, if you are more like me then it’s more likely to work, I guess. Move from “quid-pro-quo” to “quid-pro-nothing”. Be in service of others. Be and do “good”. Do the right thing. Be wise – there’s more to life than self-promotion, personal achievements, and being a hero. Make the right moves – not to get something for yourself, but for the greater good. Optimize for the group. As another friend and mentor told me once about the stock market – “All ships rise and fall with the tide” – well, same is true for leadership, communities, and office-work. You could promote yourself forward in the org chart, but if you leave dead bodies behind and destroy everything on your path – what have you accomplished if not to be the last person standing on a sinking ship?

For many people this will not feel natural, and that is okay. It is not meant to work for everybody. If you are still searching for your leadership style, and modus operandi, then, at least consider it. Some alternatives to this mindset are the likes of machievelism, every-person-for-themselves, stab in the back, never help anyone mindset that you might see with Gavin Belson in the hilarious HBO TV show “Sillicon Valley”. Frankly, I see nothing wrong with that being “the truth” for some people. Whatever makes you happy!

Radical acceptance

Me: “Oh my God, I am so happy this is over… how did it go?”

Shadow: “Not that great. You seem a bit nervous?”

Me: “Yeah, I think I did a terrible job. I felt so lost during the process.”

Shadow: “What’s the worst thing that happened?”

Me: “I might have messed up the interview, the candidate might have thought I am a phony…”

Shadow: “Even then, so what? What’s the worst that could have happened? To deal with anxiety, always prepare for the worst in advance, and then hope for the best.”

“Behavioral” interview training, long time ago.

Probably by a systemic mistake, I was pulled into an interview at one of my previous jobs, that I wasn’t quite qualified to do, yet. I was scared to reject it, as I thought something bad would happen if I did. Interviewing prospective candidates was a big deal, and I already had around 50 or so “coding” interviews under my belt. What could go wrong with one more, slightly different interview, it’s not a rocket science, is it? So I went along, and accepted the interview I was absolutely unprepared for. The “behavioral” interview is supposed to assess the “cultural fit” of a candidate with the company’s own peculiar ways of doing things. Well, I hate to say it, but I had little to no idea what the culture was myself, let alone how to assess someone else on it. Fake it ’till you make it, they say. I went online and researched what “behavioral” interviewing is about. I gathered and memorized a bunch of questions from the internal knowledge base. With the basic training and a bit of reading, I went into the interviewing room, absolutely terrified of what might happen… The “shadow” (a far more experienced engineer and interviewer) was accompanying me to observe my work. The candidate entered the room.

One, after another, after another – I asked 50 different questions, in a frenzy…

Me: “Can you give me an example of you disagreeing with your boss?”

Candidate shares an example X.

Me: “Aha, OK. Can you give me an example of a mistake you made?”

Candidate shares an example Y.

Me: [asks no follow up questions] – “Aha, OK. Tell me about a time you were proud of yourself?”

… and so on and so forth.

Yours Truly conducting a Behavioral Interview

Okay, so, on a scale of 1 to 10, that interview was probably about “2”… meaning, it was not a total disaster, but it was far from being even remotely good (7) or mediocre (5). I blew it. Ever since this event, I stopped interviewing candidates. I get panic attacks just thinking about it. Alas, I did learn one thing. 1) do not “fake it till you make it” in interviewing, (2) if you have to interview, know what you are doing, and even if you don’t, make sure to ask some follow up questions so that it at least seems like you know what you are doing, and most importantly (3) when dealing with anxiety, it helps to prepare for the worst in advance.

The wise Shadow told me that “preparing for the worst” is a mental exercise that helped him deal with anxiety. Analyzing the situation you are getting into in advance, and imagining your biggest fears and undesired outcomes, and then saying “yolo, even if that happens, I will survive / I will be OK / I will take actions XYZ and move on” helps a lot. Throughout the years I have used this advice to deal with situations inside and outside of the office.

Just as in the previous section, this advice is not the best mantra to live by, at least not for me, but it was a great stepping stone towards my next realization – and that is radical acceptance. Radical empathy, too (reminds me of an episode from Star Trek – Strange New Worlds…). Here is the deal. Preparing for the worst is good. But having radical acceptance is the best, when possible. Preparing for the worst means you imagine negative outcomes (that almost never happen) and how would you react to them, therefore curbing your anxieties. But the real deal for me was when I realized radical acceptance – it is not something that can be taught, though. Unlike “preparing for the worst” which is a technique you can try and master, the radical acceptance is more of a state that you achieve at some point. It is a state of bliss where you no longer cling to outcomes. The wisdom of Mark Manson, the author of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”, comes to mind. He wrote a bit about perfectionism, self-loathing, self-esteem and such topics. I recommend you check out his page at https://markmanson.net/

Hoping for the Best

To wrap things up, once you are prepared, you know thy purpose and have a solid motivation, and ready for whatever outcome might be, then go in, hoping for the best outcome. Simple as that.

This is not a silver bullet recipe. It will not work for everybody. It will probably not work for most people. It did work for me, I believe, in the long run. That and a bunch of other little things. With some luck, you will find your recipe. Combine the good people around you, their support, the stuff parents taught you, the things you read elsewhere, and with some practice, you just might find yourself one day wondering how far you have traveled from where you are at now.

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