Client In an Anxious System

A Blog Post by Chad Hall


Rita came into a recent coaching session in an emotional low boil. She was frustrated, a bit angry, and somewhat scared. Why? Because the day before she’d experienced an awful meeting with her supervisor – someone fairly new to the organization who’d made it his business to micro-manage her every move.

Rita’s supervisor wanted to know why she’d paid so much for parking on a recent company trip. Why did she choose to stay in a hotel instead of leaving her house at 5 AM for a 9 AM meeting? Why had she “dumped” so much detail work on the administrative staff? He was second-guessing and disapproving of all sorts of behaviors that she’d practiced for nearly two decades with the organization.

Rita confessed that working with her new supervisor was like an unending trip to the principal’s office.

Rita’s experience is all too common. The dynamic that boiled her emotions and depleted her motivation is best described as an “anxious system.”

Individuals feel anxious in times of uncertainty, confusion, and threat. Unlike urgent emotions such as fear and anger, anxiety slowly strangles the life out of a person. It does the same thing in organizations. Anxiety grows within an organization in response to uncertainty. For example, Rita’s organization is in their third year of declining revenue. Her supervisor acted out his anxiety by trying to control Rita and by casting her as the source of the problem (“she is spending too much money.”) Like all negative emotions, anxiety causes people to see things in distorted ways. For example, Rita’s “overspending” totaled about $85 in an organization with a $5million budget and a $1million dollar revenue shortfall.

Anxious systems foster toxic behaviors, especially from weak leaders. Rita’s supervisor became overly controlling. Unable to control the actual threat, he focused on controlling things he could control but which didn’t matter, such as how much Rita spent on parking. Her supervisor also practiced scapegoating – blaming one sacrificial lamb (Rita) for all the woes the organization was facing. Additionally, he foisted his anxiety onto Rita by communicating his disappointment in her behavior but refusing to provide clear expectations going forward: “I don’t want to have to create a rule about how far away a meeting needs to be in order to get a hotel, I just want you to use better judgment.” Clear disappointment without clear expectations is one of the primary signs of an anxious system.

A truly terrible aspect about organizational anxiety is the compounding effect it has – the initial external threats generate anxiety, which in turn lead to toxic behaviors that pose additional threats, generating even more anxiety, and so on.

What’s a person within an anxious system to do?

Rita’s initial response to her supervisor was the wrong one. As a participant in an anxious system, she acted irrationally and in a way that was detrimental to the system. How? Believing that she was helping, she determined that she would start paying for things out of her own pocket. That’s a textbook anxious system move – allowing her supervisor’s anxiety to get transferred to Rita instead of being dealt with by the supervisor.

Anxious systems are not confined to businesses or large organizations. The same dynamic occurs in churches, families, schools, and communities. No matter what kind of coaching you do or who’s in your coaching niche, some of your clients are living with an anxious system.

So what’s a coach to do?

Coaches provide help by not adopting the client’s perspective. When a person operates within a system, they often cannot see the dynamics of that system, they just think the anxiety is normal.

It’s not the case that we coaches see things more clearly than our clients do, but we should question our client’s perspective and help them consider alternatives. By being aware of the signs of an anxious system, we can resist adopting our client’s take on things and invite the client to step back and notice the system, not just the immediate behaviors and reactions.

I encouraged Rita to reframe her decision to pay for things that her organization should cover. Instead of viewing the decision as a noble sacrifice, she recognized it as an attempt to rescue her anxious supervisor by assuming responsibility for his anxiety. In essence, she’d agreed with him that she was the source of his anxiety, even though she knew this was not the case.

Rita’s new clarity also generated sympathy for her supervisor. Instead of casting him as a morally bad person, she realized that his “mean” behavior stemmed from the anxiety he was experiencing. While his anxious behaviors were unhealthy and unhelpful, they were also understandable given the circumstances. To understand his behaviors did not mean Rita needed to excuse him, but it did allow her to respond with truth and kindness.

Responding with truth and kindness is at the heart of being a non-anxious presence. When we provide a space for our clients to vent, to step back, and to see things with clearer head and heart, we invite them to reduce their own anxiety and break the self-perpetuating anxiety loop.

Rita re-entered her anxious system with new awareness and fresh determination to resist participating as an anxious actor in an anxious system.