Just Enough Anxiety: A Powerful and Practical Tool for Executive Coaches, By Robert Rosen

One of your key challenges as an executive coach is to help your clients make the right choices that get them and their organizations where they want to go. The challenge has multiple steps. First, you must help your clients get comfortable with the idea of being coached. Next, you must gain their confidence and maintain their attention even though they are immersed, entangled and possibly overwhelmed in their day-to-day business activities. Finally, you must keep them moving through the gap between their current reality and their desired outcome, while acknowledging their successes along the way. Throughout the process, you must turn up the heat or back off as needed, especially at critical choice points. You must create just enough anxiety for your client to move forward in productive ways.

I base this conclusion on my 30 years of work as a psychologist, entrepreneur and CEO adviser/coach, and on my interviews with nearly 300 top business leaders. I know from personal experience that conquering this coaching challenge is possible only when I'm able to create just enough anxiety for my clients—as well as within myself.

The level of anxiety is a powerful force and a practical tool for growth for both clients and coaches.

Let's face it: Anxiety is a fact of life. How we use it makes all the difference. If we let it be overwhelming, it will turn to panic. If we deny or run from it, complacency will rule. But if we use the right level of anxiety in a positive way, we can turn that anxiety into a powerful life force. We can tap into the hidden driver of business success.

What is just enough anxiety? It is the emotional charge that tells us we're ready to take action, our signal for learning and growth. Within an organization, just enough anxiety unleashes human energy and creates hope and momentum to move across the gap from where we are to where we want to be.

In contrast, too much anxiety is wrapped in negative thinking and causes people to resist, attack or avoid its source to ease the pain they feel.  It creates discomfort, frustration and wasted movement, or no movement at all. On the other hand, too little anxiety, which arises from an unrealistic belief that all is well and an unfounded expectation that the good times will continue unabated, leads to complacency, boredom and stagnation.

Creating just enough anxiety involves balancing on a continuum between too little and too much anxiety, over time and as circumstances change. The continual movement toward the center maximizes learning, creativity, achievement and performance, no matter what is happening. This healthy range of anxiety differs from person to person, company to company and time to time. No one-size-fits-all definition of anxiety applies to every situation.

As a coach, you need to continually assess your clients' level of anxiety and help them realize the appropriate level of anxiety that will enable them to take the next step toward their goals. And you need to keep your own balance as well.

How does someone acquire an optimum level of anxiety? The first step is to develop two key attributes-an open mind and an open heart. The second step is to live comfortably within three paradoxes: realistic optimism, constructive impatience and confident humility. Here's how.

To develop an open mind...

  • Strengthen self-awareness by being fully present in each moment, learning to recognize and replace self-defeating thoughts and beliefs and cultivating self-confidence.
  • Commit to lifelong learning by being willing to not know, developing insatiable curiosity and seeking out new challenges.
  • Practice non-attachment by embracing the unknown, admitting what can and cannot be controlled and taking inventory of what matters most in life.

To develop an open heart...

  • Be emotionally honest by managing and expressing emotions in healthy ways, befriending anxiety and becoming comfortable with competing emotions.
  • Deepen empathy and compassion by being sensitive to what people feel and need in the midst of change, looking at things from diverse perspectives and seeing the good in others.
  • Become emotionally resilient by finding the positive in each experience, keeping the bigger picture in mind and learning ways to mediate high anxiety.

An open mind provides the freedom to grow and change. An open heart provides the energy required to do so.  Together they enable an individual to cross the gap between "here" and "there"-the vortex where change takes place. People with an open mind and open heart are able to create just enough anxiety within themselves to master three key paradoxes that inspire top performance in others.

We all live with paradox. For instance, I'm a strong, competent, ambitious person who likes to control my own destiny. But I'm also sensitive and have a strong desire to make deep, intimate connections. And I'm no stranger to feeling humble, confused or vulnerable.

I kept these "hard" and "soft" sides of myself separate for years. Like many people in business, I showed only half of who I am to the world. The rest I kept hidden or shared only with close friends and family. I often felt like one person on the inside and another on the outside. But I came to realize that not bringing my full self into my business relationships limited my effectiveness.

Over time, as I've applied what I've learned from top leaders and my own experience, I have embraced the entirety of who I am in both my personal life and my business. Now, as I coach clients, I strive to apply the three key leadership paradoxes that I've found are essential in creating just enough anxiety for others.  To coach with realistic optimism, I acknowledge my clients' current reality while remaining optimistic about their potential future. To coach with constructive impatience, I push clients to stretch beyond their comfort zone to reach defined goals while giving them the support they need to get there. To coach with confident humility, I believe in my own capabilities while remaining open to learning from my clients.

Yes, coaching others to success is a challenge. But there is great satisfaction in helping people get from where they are to where they want to be.

Your client's success story is your success story. It means you have generated just enough anxiety inside yourself and have helped your client create the right level of anxiety.  It means you have each turned your anxiety into productive energy. Both you and your client have effectively modulated your own anxiety levels by keeping an open mind and an open heart and living with realistic optimism, constructive impatience and confident humility.

How close are you to being a coach with just enough anxiety (JEA)? Use the tool below to find out.

Are You a JEA Coach?

Instructions: Rate yourself on the extent to which you demonstrate the following behaviors, beliefs and attitudes.



3=A lot of the time

4=Almost always

___I value and seek change.

___I am comfortable with uncertainty.

___I use anxiety as a positive force for growth.

___I engender hope and optimism in others.

___I take calculated risks in my life.

___I treat failure as a learning opportunity.

___I demonstrate adaptability and collaboration at work.

___I use conflict to find more effective solutions.

___I face tough issues with confidence.

___I trust myself and others to think flexibly.

___I am constantly scanning my environment.

___I am adept at managing my emotions.

___I understand the emotions of others.

___I am able to energize myself and others.

___I maintain a positive attitude in the midst of adversity.

___People describe me as honest and authentic.

___My passion inspires people to do their best.

___I readily help others handle change and uncertainty.

___I challenge people to outperform themselves.

___I pride myself in knowing my strengths and shortcomings.

Results: Add up your score and compare it to the results below. Focus on your lowest scores to strengthen your JEA coaching skills.

  • 62 - 72: You are a strong JEA coach.
  • 51 - 61: You are moving in the right direction to become a JEA coach.
  • 40 - 50: You need to step up your game to become a JEA coach.
  • 39 or below: You have a lot of work to do to become a JEA coach.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (February 2009, Volume 5, Issue 1). Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.

Posted by Robert Rosen

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