There's nothing quite like being the boss of other people to stimulate underlying nervousness. Unfortunately, employees may not be aware of what's happening if their boss starts to show cracks in resolve. Some people may even interpret anxious behaviors as personal attacks.
If you work in an office and notice that your manager, your CEO, or another leader is constantly on-edge, they might be experiencing one of the following:
Carrying all the weight
Anxious leaders, especially new leaders, can feel like every action taken by their team is a reflection on them. As a result, the leader will try to limit the risk of failure by avoiding opportunities to delegate work and grant autonomy. Oftentimes this manifests as micromanagement, but some leaders, especially those with technical skills, may find themselves "volunteering" to take on far more work than they can handle. Both of these behaviors will create a bottleneck because the leader has to be involved in every decision.
Leaders who put too much emotional weight on failure, like those who use career growth as a measure of self-worth, may find themselves trying to carry all of the weight. If a manager has recently transitioned away from being an individual contributor, it's easy to fall back into their previous "I'll just solve it myself" way of thinking when the pressure's on.
One of the most effective things an employee can do is communicate to their manager how the behavior makes them feel. Interestingly, leaders who try to carry the team are thinking about self-preservation so much that they overlook the damage it does to relationships between team members. These managers aren't ignoring the feelings of their subordinates, they are just defaulting to a defensive mindset which creates blind spots.
If you're an employee in this position, consider using the Situation-Behavior-Impact framework when delivering the feedback to your boss. In most cases, managers who hear how their anxiety negatively impacts the team will quickly re-evaluate their behaviors because, ironically, failing as a leader is a cause for anxiety. Sometimes they don't adjust, but those managers should expect to lose teammates and miss targets.
Morale above all else
All reasonable people-managers have a sensitivity to team morale, but some anxious leaders are afraid of the ripple effects of doing anything that might make someone feel bad. This includes, but isn't limited to, avoiding constructive feedback, not admitting failure, struggling with executive decision-making, or agreeing to things that can't (or won't) be respected later on.
Outside of the office, this type of behavior is known as "being a people-pleaser". The root of people-pleasing is anxiety about social and emotional rejection. People who are sensitive to rejection are in a loop of active avoidance; something as subtle as not receiving an enthusiastic response to their ideas can trigger the manager's anxiety enough to avoid further conversation. Although the sources of rejection can be avoided, managers who do so will inevitably struggle with direct confrontation, instead opting for "safer" yet corrosive behaviors like passive-aggression or tribalism.
Kim Scott's excellent management book Radical Candor explains the consequences of skipping out on the honest conversations. People-pleasing leaders, avoiding regular confrontation, deliver messages that tend to fall on the left side of the four quadrants. Employees receiving those messages will struggle to grow, struggle to trust their boss, or both.
Just like with micromanaging leaders, an employee may be able to help their manager build confidence by delivering feedback using the SBI framework. However, there is one caveat: people-pleasing behavior usually extends far beyond the office. Opportunities for rejection are everywhere. The manager may not be able to break through the anxieties which keep them from delivering direct feedback or standing up for their ideas without therapy or a change in lifestyle.
Still, I recommend that all leaders read Radical Candor as soon as possible. Using a framework like Scott's is a great starting point for comparing managerial behaviors and making meaningful adjustments.
Feelings of helplessness
Managers, especially middle managers, may find themselves between a rock and a hard place when they can't get the resources they need but can't lead the team to success with what they have. For example, if a manager recognizes that one or more of their employees is lacking in experience but has no authority to fire them or hire more capable team members, this can lead to feelings of helplessness. On the surface the manager may remain positive, but their attention will begin to slip as they detach themselves from the under-performing team. In the worst case scenario, the helplessness will manifest as frustration, which might be directed onto undeserving team members.
This situation puts managers and their employees in a really tough spot. The problem is structural in nature. Employees on the receiving end of their manager's frustration may need to call out such behavior with the goal of discussing what the team needs to be more successful (and if the manager thinks your skills are lacking, that's worth discussing too).
Once in a while, a team can work together to reach their goals despite being at a disadvantage, but most of the time it's best to wait things out until the team is dissolved or until some other organizational change is made.
Friend or family challenges
It's expected that everyone "keep it professional" at work. However, if your boss just called off their wedding, you can be sure that it's all they're thinking about. Someone's home life (or lack thereof) has a huge amount of influence on their performance in the office.
Suppressing disappointment, anger, fear, or sadness can surface in strange ways, the very least of which is constant fatigue. For some individuals, work is treated as an escape from the every day pressures of home life and turned into an environment where they can temper responsibilities and maintain control. Losing a loved one can hit someone especially hard and comes with so much background noise in the form of coordination that the effects inevitably creep into their office behavior long after returning from bereavement leave.
Leaders in this position are always running on a half-empty fuel tank. Regardless, leaders still have a responsibility to maintain transparency with their team. Even something as simple as saying "I've got some things happening at home right now that are distracting. Apologies ahead of time if I seem like I'm checked out" can help set proper expectations with employees.
Although it requires a certain level of psychological safety, the easiest thing that employees can do is check in with their boss. My favorite way to do this is ask a manager "how are you feeling?" or even "stressed?" when it seems obvious that something is on their mind. Questions like this can help remind leaders that they aren't expected to deal with everything on their own. In most cases, the source of the stress will eventually pass, and your boss will have appreciated the gestures of support.
Really bad sleep
Chronically-poor sleep can be caused by a number of things, like new medication, a change in routine, or a mattress that should have been replaced long ago. Lying awake for a night or two might not change a person, but after weeks or months of insomnia, the sufferer will be constantly anxious and irritable.
Sleeping is the time that our brains clear out cellular waste accumulated during the day, which partially-explains why sleep-deprived people are less creative, coordinated, and disciplined. Physical labor jobs like construction and truck-driving become more dangerous as employees lose sleep. While office workers aren't exactly installing commercial ventilation, sleepy employees are at risk of making mistakes, cutting corners, or overlooking important details. Since memory and reasoning tasks get harder, sleep-deprived leaders are more likely to make poor judgement calls, which contributes to a cycle of more anxiety and more poor sleep.
It's pretty difficult to self-diagnose sleep problems, and even harder to fix them (I know... I've been there). As a leader, it's extra-important to prioritize time for improving sleep. If meaningful changes in lifestyle and home environment don't help, it never hurts to see a professional.
Since getting restful sleep is a personal journey, employees of grumpy, raccoon-eyed leaders can't do much more than call out what they see. In the best case scenario, workers and their bosses can discuss the insomnia and adjust expectations.
Drinking too much
Sadly, this happens more often than you'd think. It's not going to be obvious, either.
In the US, the culture of social drinking can turn visiting the bar into a daily routine if a leader feels like they need to be "always on." After years of self-medication to take the edge off, once-casual drinking can develop into an inability to relax without alcohol. This habit can develop publicly on a bar stool, silently at home, or both.
Drinking in the middle of the work day doesn't become a problem because it's so visible and can be easily disciplined. It's all the other drinking that contributes to anxious leadership.
The human body is excellent at adjusting to the environment, and so when your brain is swimming in alcohol from dinnertime to midnight every day, it adjusts it's internal chemistry to continue functioning properly. However, the brain won't adjust back to baseline right away and, besides sleeping poorly, the resulting withdrawal will often creep into the workday. Regular heavy drinkers with mild withdrawal symptoms are more fatigued, more anxious, less able to think clearly, and more prone to reactive decision-making, even when they don't have a classic hangover. Even if someone isn't drinking during the work day, they can still be a high-functioning alcoholic.
Is it right for employees to address destructive drinking habits with their boss? I'm not sure what the answer is.
Drinking has its roots in areas of life that are incredibly hard to change, like client dinners, date nights, and celebrations. If your boss's anxiety is made worse by a regular cycle of nightly imbibing and daily withdrawal, your best bet is to address the behaviors that impact you directly and decide if you can trust them to make meaningful changes to their lifestyle for the benefit of the team.
Look out for each other
The best feedback I've ever received as a manager was from an individual contributor who scheduled a one-on-one meeting to tell me to stop overriding his decisions when I didn't have context. He was thoughtful and used the Situation-Behavior-Impact framework to frame his concerns. Until that moment, I hadn't noticed how much I forced my anxious, half-baked solutions onto my team, and so I apologized. I was a new manager and was afraid to fail. After giving him space, the engineer later went on to be a respected and high-impact senior team member.
Admitting personal challenges is both scary and necessary for growth. It's the boss's responsibility to accept their own anxieties and confront them, but constructive feedback from team members is the kind of support leaders need to get started.
So, when the going gets tough, pull your boss aside and ask them how they've been sleeping or if they feel like they're burning out. After all, your manager is human, too.