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Most of us feel anxious about our careers from time to time.
But a new study suggests we should be careful about what we do with that anxiety or we could make some serious missteps.
Experiments show that when people are feeling anxious, the majority not only will seek advice but also take it, says Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. However, the anxiety affects their ability to discern between good and bad advice.
So, if you are anxious about an upcoming presentation at work, you might seek advice from a colleague. If that colleague offers advice, you're likely to take it even if it's not that great and could cause you to blow a pitch to a client.
Or, if you're a job seeker and getting more anxious about your lack of prospects, you could be susceptible unscrupulous individuals posing as career coaches who have little good advice to offer.
Schweitzer says he became interested in studying anxiety because "it's so common throughout our day and simmers underneath the surface much of the time."
Uncertainty, unusual situations or unknown outcomes often trigger anxiety, he says.
"We're afraid of what is around the corner," he says.
Interestingly, today's technology even may be responsible for new anxiety triggers: Bad news can be delivered any time through email or texts. Our constant mobility forces us to meet new people all the time, which often triggers anxiety, Schweitzer says.
"We're hardwired to feel anxious," he says. But self-confidence "can inoculate you against the bad influence of anxiety."
But if you've been knocked around a bit, losing a job or a promotion, your confidence may start to ebb and anxiety begins to take over.
"We become less sure of ourselves, and that's when we start to seek advice," he says. "But the problem is that we're less able to weigh advice well."
Another downside to anxiety: Not only does it start to affect individual success but also that of a company.
Anxious workers may begin to absorb bad advice that leads to poor decisions, or they may avoid making decisions.
"While anger may trigger a stay and fight response, anxiety triggers flight," Schweitzer says. "We would rather avoid the issue than deal with it. We put off a problem, and it festers."
An employee may avoid working with a teammate who triggers anxiety. But a boss who triggers the same response may cause turnover, he says.
"Maybe you want to ask for a raise, but you'd rather leave than have to ask for it."
Schweitzer, who studied anxiety with Wharton doctoral student Alison Wood Brooks and Professor Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, says that anxiety increases "the cognitive load" so that you may be unable to think about much else besides what's making you anxious.
"That means that there is less mind space to entertain new ideas. We're diverting our own attention," he says. "Anxiety motivates people to resolve their uncertainty, so instead of doing their job, they may be checking with their financial adviser all the time if they're anxious about their retirement, for example."
When you feel anxious, Schweitzer advises you to try to transform the feeling into excitement. Instead of saying, "I'm worried about this project," tell yourself "I'm excited about this project." The key is changing the way you think about something; "psyche yourself up," Schweitzer says.
Such a pep talk may be difficult at first because people are geared to try to calm themselves when they feel anxious, and others may try to help you calm yourself when anxiety kicks in. Instead, Schweitzer advises channeling that energy into imagining all the exciting possibilities.
"Everyone feels anxiety," Schweitzer says. "But you can learn to refocus that feeling on what can go right instead of what can go wrong."
Anita Bruzzese can be reached c/o Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22107.