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Taking the Sweat Out of Communication Anxiety

April 1, 1995
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Featured Article
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A supervisor steps in front of a sea of faces. Suddenly, his mind blanks. His stomach churns. And he's uncertain he can make it to the restroom. Another outbreak of the flu? No such luck. It's time to facilitate another team meeting—a situation that provokes communication anxiety among many adults in today's changing workplace.

Indeed, two out of every 10 individuals experience some form of communication anxiety, according to communications experts. That doesn't mean that the individual is less intelligent or undesirable, or should be labeled as different, but that he or she has a learned problem.

Hence, many individuals who fear public speaking often pursue careers that involve limited contact with groups or are removed from the mainstream. They tend to participate in organizations as individual contributors, but seldom draw attention to themselves. But what happens if your company reengineers its work processes, and you're suddenly thrust into a position that requires you to engage people on a daily basis? Will you sweat, suffer, sink or swim?

Line supervisors at The Whirlpool Corporation, Clyde Division in Ohio, met this challenge head-on. Company management recognized the problem of communication anxiety as it attempted to institute self-directed work teams. So they gave their line supervisors training to improve their communication skills, teaching them to become group advisers rather than top-down directors.

Work teams require new role for supervisors.
In 1988, Whirlpool employees faced an increase in production schedules during a new product introduction, thus placing an added burden on an already productive work force of 3,200. The union-free division had just completed a multiyear project, which involved a major product-design change. They had successfully installed state-of-the-art manufacturing systems that allowed them to produce high-quality, low-cost automatic clothes washers.

To seek a business advantage, the company chose not to move plants to lower-cost labor markets like some of its competitors. Countering this trend, for three years, the Clyde Division issued lump sum payments in lieu of a base-wage increase. In an attempt to be a best-cost producer, the Clyde Division of Whirlpool Corporation wanted to bring their employees' wages in line with other major appliance makers and the local market.

It became increasingly obvious that the company's cost-containment efforts weren't adequate in the highly competitive appliance industry. Only long-term solutions would give the company the advantages it needed. The solution: self-directed work teams. By moving from a supervisor-directed work force to an empowered one, employees would be better able to contribute to the organization.

But as the change process unfolded, Whirlpool managers discovered a few barriers. Most of the obstacles were experienced by the company's line supervisors. For example, many of them questioned the long-term security of their jobs to the point where they failed to endorse the team concept.

They also were concerned about the increased work load, particularly during the design phase. The team development and training phase thrust the supervisors in a role that required additional work and into a role they weren't prepared to perform.

The most unexpected concern, however, came from the line supervisor's new role as communicator. In a team-oriented organization, not only is the line supervisor expected to perform the normal daily responsibilities of achieving the desired production and quality numbers, but he or she must coach individuals, make group presentations and lead work teams.

Bill Pasmore, author of Creating Strategic Change, observes: "Participation is a threat to authority based on top-down control of decision making." In the traditional organization, Whirlpool supervisors were selected and retained on their ability to issue directives and handle discipline when a subordinate violated company policy. In the new organization, the area supervisor became a coach or team adviser. Instead of issuing directives, the team adviser was now being requested to facilitate team meetings, encourage and train individual team members, manage projects and provide general leadership to the team.

As the Clyde Division progressed further into the work-team process, the division vice president and five directors decided to form a Supervisor Design Team to address any problems. The design team was facilitated by two HR organizational development administrators and included eight randomly selected supervisors representing the various business units. The team's objective was to identify the skills required under the new role as team supervisor and develop a plan to improve the current supervisors' skills base. In an empowered organization, line supervisors turned advisers would have to spend at least 50% of their time interacting with others through team development, general communications and project management. After defining the performance required under a work-team model, the design team also generated a list of training requirements that would be required for success as team advisers. Some of the basic skills included computer literacy; engaging in interpersonal dialogue; planning meetings; making group presentations; and writing. Being a team adviser would also require leadership skills that help establish a lean production system. One must learn to coach, counsel and facilitate meetings.

Indeed, most supervisors, including the Design Team members, were quick to realize, but not publicly admit, their own shortcomings in the new environment. The symptoms were first noticed when traditionally strong-performing supervisors began to have difficulty leading their teams. For example, they appeared to lack control of the team meetings. Also, normally talkative supervisors were unusually frustrated and quiet during meetings, only to express opinions on the same topics outside the meetings. Additionally, the same supervisors, who normally appeared poised during general conversations, were extremely ill at ease when asked to present information to the division management team and other groups. The Supervisor Design Team recognized that their peer group suffered from more than just a lack of good presentation skills. The supervisor turned team adviser suffered from communication anxiety.

Communication anxiety is normal.
Through the data collection phase, the Supervisor Design Team learned that several organizations identified communication anxiety as a common problem. The team also learned about one training model that had been developed by a communications consultant to help alleviate this inhibitor. Based on this information, one of the article's authors [Arden K. Watson] helped define the problem and work with the line supervisor group at Whirlpool's Clyde Division.

According to James McCroskey, professor of speech communication at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, the syndrome is "an individual's level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person or persons." Fear of communicating is often associated with mere shyness, although shyness also includes social and personality difficulties.

The fear of giving a speech or talking in a new situation is normal, and it's experienced by most individuals. But the abnormal fear of communication, experienced by one-fifth of the population, affects the lives of these people in many ways, according to McCroskey. They may experience more general anxiety, resist ambiguity, avoid new experiences, prefer to be alone and exhibit less creativity. And when they have to communicate, they often have difficulty expressing their ideas.

According to research by Virginia P. Richmond, a communications professor at West Virginia University, a job applicant study compared business students with similar credentials. The students with greater communication anxiety were projected to be less task-oriented, less satisfied in their job, to have poorer relations with their peers, supervisors and subordinates at work, to be less productive and less likely to be promoted in the business organization.

Not only does fear of speaking restrict the communication of the employee, it can have profound effects on the attitudes and productivity in the company. An organizational psychology researcher at Knoxville-based University of Tennessee, studied fear of speaking among government employees in a career-planning workshop. He suggests that the dissatisfaction of those with high fear of communication may have negative effects on communicating with a company's clients. Moreover, the job satisfaction and functions of other employees may be negatively affected by interacting with a fearful peer.

Anxiety may originate in formative years.
One of the causes of communication anxiety may lie in a child's experiences during the formative years, according to a study by John Daly and Gustav Friedrich, communication professors at the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma, respectively. Apparently a learned trait, it's one that's reinforced because of the child's communication behavior. If a child is reinforced for being silent and isn't reinforced for communicating, the probable result is a quiet child. Also, if the child is punished while attempting to communicate, the child is more likely to become quiet.

In order to tackle the problem at Whirlpool, the program that was implemented was called Speak With Confidence. It was developed by the author [Watson] and is used with groups of six or less participants. It incorporates both communication anxiety coping techniques and develops communication skills. Anxiety coping techniques include visualizing and setting goals; communication skills include introducing oneself, making presentations and learning to speak assertively.

The model consists of applicable material for all work levels, and the content includes introspective as well as interactive and practice activities that provide immediate feedback. Here are some examples of training exercises:

  • Describe three ways that talking is important and four ways it affects others and yourself
  • Use three steps to introduce yourself
  • Use three techniques to control fear of communicating—visualize the ideal scene; set behavioral goals and measure the accomplishment of behavioral goals you set; and use five steps of rational thinking
  • Develop the introduction, body and conclusion of an informal presentation
  • Effectively deliver an organized informational presentation
  • Use an assertiveness process to verbalize opinions; ask and answer questions; give directions and talk directly to authorities.

Participants for the Speak With Confidence training were selected after completing an attitude inventory. The inventory measured communication anxiety levels in situations such as: representing the organization to other people, fielding questions at a meeting, talking to subordinates or superiors, interviewing, talking in a group and presenting information to a large group. Of the 105 supervisors who took the inventory at the Whirlpool Clyde Division, 35 participants experienced abnormal communication anxiety.

Supervisors who scored abnormally high on the inventory were invited to a private interview with the trainer to discuss their training needs. In some cases, the trainer found that the employee didn't need the training. Other supervisors who were invited avoided or refused to come to the interview. Most of those that did come, however, were receptive to and relieved that such training would be offered.

During the interview, the trainer explained the program and invited the supervisor into the training. If the person showed interest, the trainer explored the individual's attitude toward communicating, their experiences in communicating, communication needs now required of the supervisor and any of their special communication concerns.

As word spread about the positive training, several supervisors who hadn't tested in the abnormally high range requested to take the training. In all, 25 supervisors were trained in five groups. One group was trained each month during the fall of 1993. Training was held offsite in a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere.

The authors received positive reactions to the training. Through questionnaires, the participants were asked to rate the usefulness of the program, the learning material, the presenter and the facilities. One supervisor remarked: "I wish I hadn't been so resistant." When asked how she would use the training, another participant said, "I'm sure I'll hold more meetings than I would have without this training. I may even be able to expand into other parts of my job."

In terms of learning, the trainer measured a 29% reduction in inventory scores, which indicated less fear of and greater willingness to communicate.

One participant explained her change in attitude: "Just because I have a thought doesn't make it so. How other people perceive me is different from what I feel on the inside." When the supervisors' pre- and post-objective lists were compared, the trainer found that the participants knew very few of the objectives prior to the training but afterwards, they had learned nearly all of them.

The behavioral evaluation was completed during three- and six-month interviews in which participants were asked to state the objectives they'd learned in the training and to explain how these behaviors were used on the job.

Training program improves supervisors' self-esteem.
Indeed, companies can recognize the problem of communication anxiety among employees in three ways. First, by observing communication patterns, managers can learn whether the employee readily enters into a conversation, speaks up in a meeting or offers to give a presentation. Second, employees can be asked in what communication roles they feel comfortable or uncomfortable. And third, a professional trainer can administrate a communication anxiety inventory to reveal how many employees may suffer from the syndrome, what settings provoke the anxiety and who may benefit from training.

For Whirlpool's Clyde Division, the Speak With Confidence training has been a success. Employees have learned to introduce themselves confidently, present information in a dynamic manner and speak assertively. By successfully communicating, they have increased their self-esteem as well as their dedication to the team process.

Personnel Journal, April 1995, Vol. 74, No. 4, pp. 111-119.

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