As companies continue to wrestle with how and when to bring employees back to the office, plenty of employees are concerned but nervous about expressing their misgivings. Our recent survey of 1,697 employees reveals that a majority of employees (58 percent) reported being worried about having these awkward but important conversations, and close to a third (29 percent) said they now have a strong preference for continuing remote work and are nervous about whether their company or manager might take the opposite side of the conversation.
With topics as charged as vaccinations, masks, flexibility, and more, it makes sense that so many respondents reported some level of distress over addressing them. And rightfully so—these conversations involve high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions. But despite these factors, speaking up confidently and respectfully is still possible.
Here are three tips:
Know Your PrioritiesAnxiety is a response to the perceived threat of a cherished value. For example, your job may be at risk if you demand to continue working from home, or you may be socially marginalized (or worse) if you confront an unvaccinated boss who refuses to wear a mask. But anxiety decreases the instant we make a decision and decide which value matters most. For example, you must decide whether this job is more important than work flexibility or whether a comfortable relationship with your boss is more important than a heightened health risk.
These decisions can be difficult, but if we let them fester, we will experience anxiety and resentment. You’ll begin to blame others for not giving you the world you want rather than taking responsibility for confronting the world you’re in.
Mature acceptance of reality reduces anxiety as you work through the tradeoffs life is presenting to you. There may be creative ways to transcend the tradeoffs and protect both values, but the beginning of peace is accepting the need to prioritize.
Plan for the RisksLife is full of tradeoffs, and decisions often have downsides. After you’ve prioritized your values, you can further alleviate anxiety by preparing for the risks associated with your chosen course of action.
If you’re anxious about conflict with others, it could well be that you’re ignoring conflict within yourself. For example, let’s say your company has asked all employees to return to the office but that you don’t want to. You’ve prioritized your values and made a choice. You know there will be certain consequences.
How can you mitigate your anxiety? Plan for any risks associated with your choice.
To continue with our example, you might find out what the consequences will be for noncompliance, look for another employer, or adjust your finances so you can navigate a gap in employment. Maybe you could find some agreeable compromise with your manager.
The point is to recognize that whatever choice you make, consequences will follow. You can mitigate your anxiety by thinking not only of those consequences but also about them and how you can respond to them.
Prepare for the Beginning of the ConversationPrioritizing your values and planning for risks can alleviate anxiety about the situations you face, but how can you feel more confident having difficult conversations about your decisions?
First, create psychological safety at the outset of your conversation, before trying to address or resolve concerns, because the first 30 seconds often set the tone for the entire dialogue. We call this short but crucial span of time the “hazardous half-minute.”
Remember that when talking about a sensitive topic, candor isn’t the problem. People don’t become defensive because of what you’re saying, they become defensive because of why they think you’re saying it.
You can reduce your anxiety by creating a rough conversation script that quickly establishes safety. In the first 30 seconds, make it clear:
- You care about the person’s needs and concerns.
- You respect them.
For example, if you’re uncomfortable because a co-worker comes to in-person meetings without a face covering and hasn’t been vaccinated, don’t start the conversation by demanding they mask up. Instead, create psychological safety: “I know you’re opposed to wearing face coverings or getting the vaccine, and I respect your right to make those choices. I don’t want to change you or your mind. I also feel concerned about it and need to make my own choices. Can we talk about it?”
If during the conversation your peer becomes combative or defensive, remind yourself that their behavior is about psychological safety, not undiscussable issues. Try to re-establish safety by validating their values and reaffirming your respect. That does not mean you pretend to agree with their opinion, but that you recognize their right to reason through their own decisions and live their life as they see fit.
As crucial conversations around COVID-19 issues continue to remain relevant, I hope these tips help you overcome any anxiety you might feel. Remember:
- Know your priorities.
- Plan for the downside risks.
- Prepare for the hazardous half-minute.
As you follow these tips, your anxiety will decrease, and you’ll be more in control of your life and circumstances. The choices may not always be easy, but you’ll be prepared and confident as you move forward.