The Silicon Valley Voice

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Stepping Up to Trickle-Down Anxiety

Does your job make feel fretful? You’re not alone.

According to management consultant Robert W. Goldfarb, writing in The New York Times, feelings of fear and trembling are as common in the workplace as inane memos and idiot bosses. The result is a fear-based culture committed to avoiding great new ideas and making sure that bad ones never change.

It’s our overpaid overlords who are responsible. Scared silly that some new idea could bomb out and cost them their caviar breaks, the terror of the top managers is trickling down to their underlings.

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“Accustomed to hearing about budget cuts and layoffs from on high, employees at every level are becoming risk-averse,” Goldfarb writes in an article titled, “When Fear Stifles Initiative.” “Dedicated, ambitious workers tell me they are so afraid of making mistakes that they feel it’s safer for their careers to avoid innovation and initiative.”

If this is the way “dedicated, ambitious workers” feel, I can only imagine the kind of terror this situation strikes in the heart of an apathetic, slothful goof-off like you.

Putting aside the consequences of having a bunch of scared rabbits in charge of our economic health, the stress of constantly being afraid can have a serious effect on what’s left of your mental health. One employee interviewed by Goldfarb is so anxiety-ridden that he has trained himself to shut up and back off if he sees his boss “rolling her eyes” at one of his suggestions.

Gosh, it’s bad enough you have to listen to your bosses. I hate to think you have to look at them, too.

If you must constantly monitor your manager lest you stray into a career death-zone, the meager satisfaction you get from your work is sure to go up in smoke and so, very likely, will your job.

Equally chilling, this new environment of fear and dread can also dial up the discomfort you feel with your colleagues and co-workers. “Several of the most collegial management teams I work with are beginning to fracture,” writes Goldfarb. “Colleagues who once attended one another’s weddings may find themselves competing for the same job and are drifting apart.”

This uncomfortable situation probably won’t change your own personal relationships. If your colleagues still talk to you after your frolicsome behavior at their weddings — the cat-calls during the ceremony, the itching-powder in the back seat of the limo, the bare-foot dancing in the punch bowl — I’m sure a little job insecurity is not going to turn them against you.

Besides, who could challenge you for a promotion? Nobody can compete with your skills, your experience, your photos of the boss pole-dancing naked in the Kit Kat Klub after the annual board meeting.

Sad to report, this age of anxiety has even poisoned that most sacred of office relationships — the intimate connection of mentor and mentee. The vice president of an insurance company confessed to Goldfarb that he ended his role as mentor when he “suddenly realized that a young woman he was mentoring could become a competitor.”

One wonders when, exactly, the VP realized that he was mentoring his own replacement? Was it when he found the young woman sitting at his desk, carefully copying the names in his Rolodex? Or, did he not have a clue until he overheard his prodigy explain to the CFO how she could easily do the mentor’s job for half the salary?

And don’t expect to get a break by taking a vacation. Goldfarb reports that employees are afraid to leave their desks, “fearing they won’t be missed, or a once-trusted co-worker will say things go more smoothly in their absence.”

Luckily for you, there’s no chance you wouldn’t be missed. With you on vacation, nobody would be there to pilfer the storeroom for office supplies to sell on eBay. And with you gone, who is going to torture the HR department with crank phone calls?

But really, you have no reason to feel anxious because there’s no chance you are going to be pestering management with a bunch of new ideas. Why, you haven’t had a new idea since you announced that these fancy computer gizmos would never replace typewriters, or that no clunky “office copier” could ever take the place of carbon paper.

Trust me — in this risk-adverse environment, a stick-in-the-mud Neanderthal like you is likely to be perceived as management material. And that’s a new idea that should make everyone anxious.

Bob Goldman has been an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company in the San Francisco Bay Area. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com.

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