Anxiety at work is traditionally viewed as a negative, but new research shows that a moderate amount of stress—of the right kind and focused in the right way—can bring good results.
A new study suggests that the subject is more complex than previously thought, claiming that workplace anxiety can boost performance by helping people to focus and self-regulate behaviour. 
Dispositional and situational anxiety
The researchers distinguished between two types of workplace anxiety: dispositional (relating to unease regarding job performance) and situational (temporary nervousness about specific tasks, such as meeting deadlines). Each was found to have beneficial effects, under specific circumstances.
For example, employees were found to engage in 'self-regulatory processing' – monitoring their own progress on a task and focusing more, which led to better performance.
However, for this engagement to take place, employees had to be:
- motivated, so that they could use their anxiety to aid focus;
- emotionally intelligent, to recognise their anxiety for what it was;
- skilled at their job, so that the anxiety wasn’t felt to be founded and therefore didn’t adversely affect performance.
Our Belbin Team Roles – behavioural strengths – and our understanding of these, can have a bearing on the levels of anxiety we experience at work, influence our own working styles and impact the team around us.
The language used in the research is notably focused on tasks and deadlines, and it is amongst the Action roles (specifically Completer Finisher and Shaper) that anxiety is most frequently found. The behaviour behind both roles can be said to be motivated by anxiety.
For those with Completer Finisher tendencies, internal anxiety motivates them to strive for the highest possible standards in their work.
To some extent, the rest of the team relies on this impetus, since it means high-scoring Completer Finisher colleagues are more likely to go the extra mile to eliminate mistakes and omissions which can spoil a piece of work.
However, in this case there is an optimum level of anxiety. If the workload is too heavy, and there is little or no prospect of completing it on time, anxiety can become overwhelming and counter-productive. Work piles up and deadlines are missed – or worse, the individual’s health and wellbeing suffers.
There are a number of measures teams can take to ensure that those with Completer Finisher tendencies are not overwhelmed by anxiety.
- Boundaries need to be clearly demarcated, so that high Completer Finishers know where their responsibilities begin and end.
- Because of their own high standards, those with Completer Finisher amongst their preferred roles are often reluctant to delegate, even if their workload is already too heavy, and they are likely to prioritise the detail over the deadline. Workload needs to be carefully managed and prioritised by someone with a broader view – someone who can draw the line when checking becomes obsessive and counterproductive.
- Adequate time (and a conducive working environment) should be allowed for error-checking at the end stages of a project. If accuracy is critical to a project’s success, be sure to attribute time reflective of that critical status, rather than rushing through the Completer Finisher stage.
For high-scoring Shapers, anxiety is a driving force, challenging them to pursue new goals, and compete with themselves and others.
They are achievement-focused: driven to overcome obstacles and be at the top of their game.
When a team is floundering (or even coasting quite contentedly), Shaper behaviours provide the necessary direction and drive to move things along. Outspoken and assertive, those with high Shaper scores focus their anxiety outwards (Completer Finisher anxiety is inwardly-focused). High Shapers take others along with them, identifying goals, setting deadlines and ensuring accountability.
When it boils over, this anxious Shaper energy begins to have a detrimental effect on both individual and team, causing agitation and conflict. The individuals themselves can mitigate this by recognising others’ limits and ensure that they recover with an apology and good humour when they miss the mark.
Others in the team can help use Shaper anxiety to best effect too.
- Those with Shaper amongst their top roles are likely to become impatient with what they perceive as ‘waffle’ and feel that things aren’t moving. If Monitor Evaluators, Completer Finishers and Specialists require a lengthy discussion on a particular subject, leave the Shaper colleague out of the meeting and give them the edited highlights afterwards.
- Whatever your own Team Roles, learn to ‘talk task’ and meet those with Shaper tendencies where they are. In other words, demonstrate an awareness of the importance of the end goal and identify the practical steps needed to achieve the deadline.
- Commit and be accountable. Strong Shapers are likely to become frustrated if it feels as though others are not pulling their weight, or allowing projects to drift. If a high-scoring Shaper perceives others in the team as safe pairs of hands able to rise to challenges, this will result in positive team energy.
Other Team Role sources of anxiety
Anxiety motivates Shaper and Completer Finisher behaviours, but of course, anyone can experience anxiety at work, regardless of Team Roles. Those with high Teamworker scores are likely to become anxious when conflict threatens harmony; those playing a Specialist role might react badly when others ‘intrude’ (as they would see it) upon their expert territory. Colleagues with strong Implementer tendencies are most likely to express their anxiety over change as resistance to it.
Understanding each person’s Team Role styles can help harness anxiety for the team’s benefit, rather than allowing it to compromise performance.
Regardless of role, playing against your strengths can cause a kind of an unhealthy level of dispositional conflict. If someone is unable to perform a role as expected because their Team Role styles are unsuited to it, this is likely to be frustrating and demotivating for both individual and manager, and may not be resolved until either individual or job is changed.
Where does your team stand in the anxiety stakes?
Have you experienced the impact of anxiety in your team and how does it affect the team's performance? Who in your team is likely to be driven by anxiety? How is this managed, so that it is beneficial to individuals and team alike? Who is well-placed to mitigate this anxiety by providing a broader view? Who needs to adapt their behaviour to ensure the best result for the team?
The Belbin Team Report aggregates behavioural data from individuals in your team, analysing trends to offer specific guidance and advice on fine-tuning your team’s performance.
The Team Role Circle gives an at-a-glance view of behavioural diversity or Team Role spread in your team, so you can see where individual contributions fit. Other pages of the Report explore team culture, delegation strategies and succession planning.