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Anxiety: When Your Nerves Get the Best of You, Change the Narrative

Anxiety can hobble even the most confident leaders. Francesca Gino offers three strategies that she uses to turn nerve-wracking situations into meaningful experiences.

Written by: Francesca Gino

When I first started teaching executive education classes at Harvard Business School, I was part of a team of five professors who conducted one-week programs for leaders of businesses from all across the globe. Most of my colleagues had extensive experience to draw on: They had served as consultants in a wide range of organizations, and they had taught in executive education for years. I had neither a consulting nor a teaching background. Walking to class, knowing that more than 90 executives were waiting for my wisdom, I felt rather nervous. My heart pounded. My palms grew clammy.

Instead of focusing on the class I was about to lead, my mind turned to all the ways I fell short: my lack of consulting experience, my greenness as a teacher, my weird accent, my degree from an institution that was not well known, and how relatively young I was, compared with the other instructors, not to mention the executives in my class.

“Here’s some good news: We can engage with that anxiety productively.”

Many of us are familiar with this kind of anxiety. I’ve interviewed and studied many leaders whose confidence has faltered before a high-stakes situation. In the face of a new challenge, it’s easy to fall prey to a particular narrative—that crippling story that sometimes runs through our head about our many shortcomings and all the possible ways we might fail.

But here’s some good news: We can engage with that anxiety productively. Here are three strategies that have helped me change the narrative and turn stressful moments into meaningful ones.

Expect to do well

How we think about an outcome influences our actual results. This insight has been demonstrated for years through the use of medical placebos. In one study, patients received intravenous injections of morphine over two days to reduce the pain created by dental work. On the third day, certain patients received an injection of saline but were told it was a powerful painkiller. Those who received this placebo tolerated the pain much better than would normally be expected—even compared with the patients given morphine.

This phenomenon holds true outside of medicine. How I expect to do at something beforehand—whether a meeting with a potential client, a joint project with new colleagues, or teaching a class full of executives—actively influences how I actually do. When I expect to do well, I feel more comfortable and excited, and as a result, I perform better. Not only that, research shows that I am also judged by others as more competent.

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