THE ANXIOUS LEADER: TURN YOUR ANXIETY INTO AN IMPORTANT BUSINESS ASSET with Morra Aarons-Mele

THE ANXIOUS LEADER: TURN YOUR ANXIETY INTO AN IMPORTANT BUSINESS ASSET with Morra Aarons-Mele

Despite being a self-described introvert, successful businesswoman, and author of “Hiding in the Bathroom” Morra Aarons-Mele used her heightened attunement to how other people feel to become who she is today. Having worked at iVillage, and in consumer marketing, Aarons-Mele moved into politics, handling internet marketing for four presidential campaigns.

She started a company called Women Online to connect influential women to the organizations and individuals who wanted to reach the female demographic. Aarons-Mele sold her company in May 2021.

Social anxiety and introversion gave Aarons-Mele what she describes as a “radar” for empathizing with others. She describes three techniques for succeeding in leadership as an introvert.

Technique 1: Creating and Preserving Alone Time

There’s almost a stigma nowadays with wanting to spend time alone, despite research that shows that we need time to ourselves to decompress and process our experiences. Aarons-Mele talks about a tendency in tech companies to create endless collaborative projects, which don’t always contribute much to the company’s strategies at large.

Introverts obtain energy from alone time. This time is often when our best thinking happens and, for women, it’s important to insist upon these introspective gaps. Aarons-Mele recommends blocking out time in your calendar so that colleagues can see that you are not to be disturbed. Cali Yost says that you need to know your work-life fit – it’s different for everyone.

Technique 2: Anxiety as a Constant Companion

Controversially perhaps, Aarons-Mele believes we need anxiety – it’s a facility that helps us cope with unpredictable stressors. “Many of us are paid to be anxious,” Aarons-Mele explains. Leaders are expected to anticipate problems and develop strategies to address them. A little anxiety balanced with having a concrete plan can be a powerful thing.

Practicing activities that we have trouble with (such as cold calling) in a more manageable setting or project can help us improve significantly. Aarons-Mele found that podcasting helped her have more useful conversations as an introvert. She liked the intimacy and low-risk aspect of this medium and developed her podcast, “The Anxious Achiever” as both a resource and opportunity.

A technique that can help with relaxation before an important presentation is to prepare for and focus on delivering your first line. There are also breathing techniques that can help, such as exhaling longer than inhaling (in for four counts and out for seven) — this can trigger relaxation. Breathing out through a straw can also be a technique for obtaining that all-important calm.

Aarons-Mele stresses the difference between clinical anxiety disorders and low-level anxiety. The former is not helpful and should be addressed by clinical means.

Technique 3: Saying No and Boundary Setting

If you are typically a people pleaser, you may have to practice saying no – blocking out alone time in a calendar is a good way to start, as is turning off your phone, or Slack channel. Aarons-Mele says she practices saying no at home, although it can be difficult to say no to children!

You can use scripts – “I’m sorry, that’s not going to work for me right now.” People who have trouble saying no worry that no means “never”, when in fact you’re only specifying that now is not an appropriate time to address a particular issue.

By planning important activities and alternating them with periods of being alone, Aarons-Mele manages to get the best out of other people and her mind. Preparation can build confidence and provide a safety net, helping to reduce anxiety. Aarons-Mele also talks about “getting into character,” as an actor might before going up on stage. She talks about stepping into your “Ultra-self” with whatever clothes and accessories help reinforce your strength.

It’s also fine to identify different communication styles and to appreciate how differently people like to work. If people recognize different styles and approaches, they can negotiate towards providing what they need as a leader. Frameworks like DISC analysis can be informative.

More Pie – Negotiation as Collaboration

Negotiating is a key skill. There are concepts of negotiation other than the competitive sense of winners and losers. Aarons-Mele prefers to see negotiations as a process where both sides can walk away happy. She calls this the “more pie” approach.

By finding shared goals, wants and motivations, you can achieve a win-win agreement. Chris Voss writes well about this issue, stressing that you should ask questions and listen to what your interlocutor is saying.

It’s still important to set a minimum standard for what you’ll accept, both in terms of outcome and emotional response. “I need to know what I want, holistically,” she explains.

For Morro, it’s not always worthwhile taking on every egotistical colleague.  This can be a form of boundary-setting. However, sometimes you do have to remind egotistical underlings of the real power dynamic – stressing the bottom line.

The Pomodoro Technique and being more “Selfish”

It’s important to be selfish, Aarons-Mele says. While men have adopted a policy of doing whatever is good for them in business, women have been slower to insist on their needs. Results should be dependent on outcomes, rather than your methods for reaching those outcomes.

Aarons-Mele is a fan of the Pomodoro technique – working in short, fast bursts, then taking time away from the desk. To others, this might seem an odd way to work, but if it works for you, and the outcomes are positive, that should be good enough for your colleagues.

Aarons-Mele talks about the obsession with Zoom calls which has developed during the pandemic – far too many video call meetings. For introverts, this can be a struggle. It’s okay to push back by asking for a conference call or an audio-only call.

Ask yourself how important it is to read a work email at 8 pm, or the weekend. It’s okay to claim important boundaries. You can also be explicit about collaboratively setting communication expectations so that everyone knows what to expect.

The Takeaway

Aarons-Mele closes by saying that the biggest takeaway from her book “Hiding in the Bathroom” is that you need to “claim your space, claim your time, work how you want to.”