Fear factor

Team coaching is “not for the faint-hearted”, says Declan Woods in the first of this three-part Team Coaching Special Report. Anxiety stifles effectiveness and can start in the team itself or even the team’s coach. Part 1: How do we turn an anxious moment into a positive performance?

Most of us spend significant amounts of time at work in teams. It is received wisdom that teams should function effectively. Often, however, they do not. A key reason is the presence of unbridled anxiety. Teams are increasingly calling on coaches to help them become more effective. But what if the team coach is having an anxious moment?

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is our response to an actual or perceived danger. When faced with the reality of having to present to a large audience, for example, most of us would be anxious. The ‘threat’ is external (to us) and tangible. This is object anxiety. Neurotic anxiety, though, is internal – within our psyche – and, although out of sight, the physiological effect on us can be the same as in object anxiety.

Anxiety might start with one person in a team (or with the team coach) and can easily spread to others through, what Hirschorn (1990) calls an “anxiety chain”.

In this way, anxiety can become pervasive, which can prohibit a team from achieving its aim or tasks.

So far, anxiety has been presented in a far from fetching light. While it can lead to serious, stress-related health consequences if unchecked, the energy of early anxiety can also be channelled to good effect. It is also an invaluable data point. Looking for cues and signals of its presence can generate valuable insights for a team. So, anxiety can be very useful.

Although I used the word “anxiety”, of the coaches we interviewed* all bar one replaced it with the word “fear”, suggesting a more extreme form of anxiety was being experienced by the team coaches. So what caused this among highly experienced coaches?

Why team coaches?

While the coaches were typically unclear about the precise source or trigger for their fear, most associated it with performance anxiety. Common phrases were: “…Will I deliver or won’t I deliver what I set out to do?” or “Can I cope with this or am I out of my depth?”

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