Keeping your nerve in the face of chronically anxious people and organizations
Recently a friend sent me this video link summarizing Friedman’s Theory of Differentiated Leadership. I found it interesting and bought the book A Failure of Nerve to learn more. Friedman says that “leadership is an emotional process of regulating one’s own anxiety.” He refers to this process as “self-differentiation. Or knowing where one ends and the other begins.”
At a high level, the concept seems straightforward because we understand the importance of limits. The challenge, however, is that people who are not differentiated attach themselves to others and organizations who are. Most people want to be “nice”, and the undifferentiated know how to make you feel “not nice” when you set boundaries. You want to be “empathetic” to someone who may be struggling, so you make an exception. But this is not helpful, neither to the undifferentiated person who does not know how to self-regulate nor to the organization as a whole.
During my time working with MBA and Executive MBA students, we collaborated with a range of different personalities. Because the groups changed year after year, we saw repeating patterns. We learned that a small percentage of the class always pushed the boundaries no matter what we did. (Research suggests that approximately 20% of a population can be “energy vampires”.) It was important for these anxious boundary pushers as well as for the overall health of the class to keep the limits firm. I remember clearly the words of a frustrated student during an end of year feedback session, “Why should I follow the rules when no one else does and there is no consequence? It makes no sense for me to stay within the limits.” That image reminds me to consider the well-being of the silent majority when I feel uncertain about setting limits in a challenging situation.
Some of Friedman’s ideas that resonate with me include:
• There is a distinction between the narcissistic self, which is unconnected, and the well-differentiated self, which is the key to integrity.
• Empathy has become a power tool in the hands of the weak to sabotage the strong.
• Stress is caused by chronic anxiety, not by too much work.
• “Viral” or “malignant” members of organizations attach to healthy organisms and are unforgivingly relentless and totally invulnerable to insight. Unless walled off or totally defeated, they tend to come back with a vengeance, as when an antibiotic is not taken for the fully prescribed period.
• The immune response is not primarily about getting rid of enemies; it is about the preservation of an organism’s integrity.
Friedman describes differentiation as including these factors:
• Maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others.
• Taking a stand in an intense emotional system.
• Being clear about one’s own personal values and goals.
• Taking maximum responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context.
Finally he defines well-differentiated leadership as focusing on strength, working with motivated people, seeking enduring change, staying in difficult situations and having a challenging attitude that encourages responsibility vs. empathy.
All of these ideas ring true when I think about the range of situations when I have struggled with anxious, undifferentiated people. What I find fascinating is that I have studied and worked in management education much of my career and have never discussed this topic in the classroom – this book was not on the syllabus. Instead, I have learned it by working with a wide range of people and organizations, having expert guidance to understand the dynamic and find solutions and learning from successes and failures.
During this summer period of rest and regeneration, this may be an good book to read if you want to learn more about increasing your ability to be a differentiated leader. As the video says in closing,
Differentiated leadership is a direction in life. A direction toward maturity. And the only way we can get moving in that direction is to take care of our “self”.
Questions for consideration
1. Can you think of a situation or organization where you feel chronic anxiety? How can you be a non-anxious presence to calm this situation?
2. Do you know certain people who increase the anxiety in a difficult situation? What can you do to set limits with them for the benefit of the organization?
3. What can you do to better differentiate your “self”? Are there ideas to try this summer while you are taking some time for rest and regeneration?
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