How Our Anxiety Shows Up in Our Behaviours

There are certain behaviours that we commonly express as humans under stress and hoarding behaviour in times of panic is not at all uncommon.

How Our Anxiety Shows Up in Our Behaviours

Today's topic is a blend of mental health and what's going on in learning and development in today's businesses. The burning question we all have is, “What’s up with hoarding toilet paper?”

Before we jump into this hot topic, we would like to thank our guest Miriam Ibrahim for not hoarding her knowledge. 

Miriam Ibrahim, a therapist with a Master's in psych who started her career in mental health, we learn she shifted from role to role, landing currently in her position of Senior Manager of Learning Solutions Architecture at TD Bank Group. 

We discussed the pride in achieving this role in a large organization that was willing to take risks and support an individual with mental health as front of mind. 

We all know that when you're looking to shift a culture, you need somebody who's willing to take a risk on the right employee. 

It's easier to take a chance on the known than an unknown and, fortunately for TD, Miriam had the skill set to transition from one role to the next.  

Miriam ultimately earned her co-workers confidence while providing new solutions and made the transition natural. 

Hoarding Behaviours As An Individual

Now, let's get back the burning question: what on earth is the deal with people hoarding toilet paper at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

And why toilet paper?

Miriam provided a transparent, easy to understand, and practical response.  

We learned it is an evolutionary act that is protective. 

There are certain behaviours that we commonly express as humans under stress and hoarding behaviour in times of panic is not at all uncommon. 

Research shows that during the Spanish Flu in 1918 people were hoarding Vicks vapour rub; it, too, became non-existent on the shelves. 

Just like Vicks, toilet paper has no preventative relevance and it doesn’t relieve any of the symptoms of COVID-19. 

This behaviour is, however, attached to a couple of psychological principles. 

First, the less in control we feel, the more we focus on doubling down on the things that are within our control.

It’s a way of making sure that we feel safe, prepared, and have the supplies we think we may need, thus giving us that feeling of security. 

Interestingly, at times of infection and illness, our sense of disgust is heightened. 

Our protective instincts tell us that when things are disgusting we stockpile supplies that ‘clear away’ the feeling of disgust, leaning in to that emotion, and ultimately try to protect ourselves from infection.  

This sense of disgust can, and will, stretch to all sorts of bodily functions and what better way both literally and figuratively to wipe away the disgust than with toilet paper?

It's also tangible, doesn't expire, and provides the physical satisfaction (something we can point to) that illustrates our effort to protect ourselves from a threat; it also doesn’t expire so stocking up on this protective item allows us to take comfort in our effort to regain control.

Second, panic is also contagious and part of our survival instincts. 

Our ancestors were able to survive because if one member of the tribe sensed (or saw) a threat, like a saber tooth tiger for example, they would sound the alarm of panic and the rest of the tribe would flee along with them, even if they themselves didn’t see the threat.

This trust in the tribe was a way to ensure that you ran first, and asked questions later - at least this way you were alive to ask the questions!

It is in this deep part of our brain that we accept panic at face value, and when we get to ‘safety’ we start to ask questions, lest we be the only one left standing in front of danger.

In modern times like today, when everybody else starts hoarding, then that panic becomes contagious. 

We feel fear because we see the tribe around us exhibiting panic behaviour (like hoarding toilet paper), it creates an increase in the supply-demand dilemma, and this further reinforces the justification for panic.

On the individual level, disgust and panic drive action in times of uncertainty, but how does this behaviour present in a business?

Hoarding Behaviours As An Organization

In business, there is a natural inclination to hoard information; knowledge is a currency that is protected fiercely.   

It’s rare for organizations to share information freely with the public, its customers or even its own employees.

There is a real sense of panic when it comes to risk and, traditionally, businesses have decided that there is risk to it’s very survival at every turn and in every person which means sharing information is done very carefully.

It is for this reason that information is protected at all times in order to maintain a sense of control.

However, contrary to the historic nature of businesses to hoard information, those that do not follow this instinct have been proven to do well, thrive in all economic conditions, and remain resilient in the face of change.

Consider The Following

The CEO of Marriott hotels went to twitter to post a statement.  

It was beautiful, honest and real. 

It wasn’t a positively painted picture, but there was a lot of hope seen in his vulnerable and emotional delivery.  

This example of courage is a powerful message, a great example of excellent leadership communication.

However, some leader chooses to protect the powerful image and ego during these times and miss an opportunity to lead by example.

Try This Instead

Most organizations are managing well and have learned the value of communication, and have learned that hoarding information is a detriment to employee engagement, public image, innovation and progress.

Again, business is not that different in terms of when there's a lot around us that we can't control. 

We double down on the things we think we can control and since we are all individuals (grouped together in organizations or not) it’s difficult to resist the urge to give in to panic behaviours.

When emotions run high, people's tempers shorten, the focus is limited, and we move into survival mode. 

Our brains are slowly shutting down and focusing on conserving energy so that we might fight, or run away. 

In our current time of uncertainty, micromanagement in remote work is beginning to present itself as a form of control.  

This leadership ‘panic’ response is an intrusive behaviour, one meant to bring control to the remote workplace when in fact it is a reaction to the absence of true leadership. 

At its crux, remote work becomes an issue of trust in the workplace.  

Research states that remote workers are actually more effective, efficient, and tend to be at least 20% more productive as they feel less of the strain and the burden that comes with travelling to, and working in, a physical office space. 

Micromanaging, while understandable in the short term (like toilet paper hoarding), can lead to employee burnout if it is persistent. 

The pandemic has forced businesses into taking actions that they would otherwise have prepared for, and designed processes around, and that allowed them to transition to remote work over time. 

We are now asked to make the switch quickly, and for many organizations and its leaders this has triggered fear, which is also leading to behaviours that make them ‘feel’ like they are in control amidst the chaos.

  • There's a lot of insecurity with losing control. 
  • Control can look so different to so many people. 
  • Stockpiling toilet paper is no different than hoarding information.  
  • Micromanaging out of fear is the same and running with the tribe.

Now that we are past the point of acute change, it is time to take a deep breath, understand that we are now moving into the sustainability phase of this abrupt change, and can start to exhibit behaviours that are less panicked, and more about new processes.

Leaders have an opportunity to either lean in to the panic, or lean in to the change.

Which will you lean in to?

Categories: Personal Development