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Coaching and Expertise in the Six Cultures

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Anxiety and Culture

We long for an existence that is comfortable, even joyful, and certainly free from anguish or surprise. Instead, we find ourselves living a temporary life in a world that is filled with the demands for change and the accompanying demands for learning. To the extent that the hazards of learning are unknown and unpredictable, specific fears translate into a diffuse anxiety about that which can’t be clearly defined. Culture provides a container. It establishes roles, rules, attitudes, behaviors and practices. It prescribes ways for people to feel safe. Culture provides predictability and ascribes importance to one’s actions and one’s presence in the world. It says that when you participate in this culture you are not alone. There are specific roles and responsibilities.

Psychologists tell us that when we become anxious, we tend to regress to a more primitive state of mind and feelings. We become more like we were as children. We are likely, In particular, to become dependent, and look forward to being taken care of by a person who in certain respects is superior. This anxiety and resulting dependency often serve us well. Anxiety, however, is a source of major problems regarding learning. Anxiety not only keeps people from embracing major new learning in their lives, it contributes to the inability or unwillingness of leaders to learn about their own organization and to learn about ways they must confront the emerging challenges of our postmodern era. We propose that anxiety blocks the personal and organizational learning required in our contemporary systems. When we as coaches and leaders come to understand the nature and effect of this anxiety and its interplay with organizational culture, we will begin to unravel many of the Gordian knots associated with resistance to learning and change.

Organizational Culture as a Container of Anxiety

The fundamental interplay between the containment of anxiety and the formation of organizational cultures was carefully and persuasively documented many years ago by Isabel Menzies Lyth (1988). She wrote about ways in which nurses in an English hospital cope with the anxiety that is inevitably associated with issues of health, life and death. Menzies Lyth noted how the hospital in which nurses worked helped to ameliorate or at least protect the nurses from anxiety. She suggested that a health care organization is primarily in the business of reducing this anxiety and that on a daily basis all other functions of the organization are secondary to this anxiety-reduction function.

It is specifically the culture of the organization that serves as the primary vehicle for addressing anxiety and stress. The culture of an organization is highly resistant to change precisely because change directly threatens the informal system that has been established in the organization to help those working in it to confront and make sense of the anxiety inherent in health care. Menzies Lyth’s observations have been reaffirmed in many other organizational settings. Anxiety is to be found in most contemporary organizations and efforts to reduce this anxiety are of prominent importance. Somehow an organization that is inclined to evoke anxiety among its employees must discover or construct a buffer that both isolates (contains) the anxiety and addresses the realistic, daily needs of its employees.

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