Steward Leadership: Combating Anxiety in Declining Organizations

Posted by Matthew Thomas

If the organization you serve is old enough to have had "glory days," and those days aren't now, then you probably serve an organization that has experienced decline (even if it is currently plateaued or growing). 

Decline creates a potent draught of emotions that, among other things, has a strong component of anxiety. Fear for a positive future often sets in when people realize that there aren't as many people as before, isn't as much money as there was in previous budgets, or the building doesn't look quite as fresh as it used to be.

Setting aside for now the denial and blame that often crop up when these things become, for the first time, obvious to the organization, anxiety often rules organizations that see their best days as behind them. They have trouble seeing a positive outcome and future that does not involve loss, pain, and grief.

Anxiety often leads to control mechinisms that move the focus off of mission and onto management. This tends to compound the problem, although it looks like people are taking steps to deal with the situation.

So what can we do?

Here are four options:

  • Acknowledge the anxiety and the reality of what drives it. This allows it to come out in the open, and then people can begin to deal with it. This may involve breaking a few eggshells that people are walking on, so do this with grace.
  • Be decisive. Clear-headed confidence (without hubris or overconfidence) can often bring security to people who are ruffled by anxiety. Dragging out decisions and waffling will increase anxiety.
  • Create a plan. Be strategic, looking for big-picture capacity to change. Don't just solve the immediate problem.
  • Give people something to do. Large or small, when people are working on something, they don't have as much chance to go around in mental circles.

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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Design Group International, Organizational Leadership, church, steward leader, decline, anxiety, non-profit