The Founder’s Paradox: How to Create Good Anxiety

Aha!s enjoying time together at a company onsite in Key Largo, Florida

December 17, 2019

The Founder’s Paradox: How to Create Good Anxiety

by Brian de Haaff

Any adventure worth taking involves a bit of risk. Because part of the thrill of doing something new is the knowledge that it has not been done before. For a company founder, that daring feeling is two-fold. What will happen if you do not succeed? And what will happen if you do?

Think of it this way — to benefit from a trampoline you need to jump. And then you need to keep jumping.

As companies grow, the adventure changes. Things get more complex. You may notice that it is harder for people to instinctively reach for those high heights — they seem to be jumping less and less. As a founder, you hope that the bold spirit remains. But the team may simply be less comfortable taking a leap. There is more at risk and no one celebrates failure.

Naturally, people do not want to let the company or each other down. And I am certain that people do want to keep moving forward. It is the story of evolution and humankind. It is what people do — we keep progressing. But depending on what type of jump is needed and what it represents, the level of anxiety will vary as well.

It is your job as a leader to know the difference between good anxiety and bad anxiety.

I think we can all quickly relate to bad anxiety as something that creates paralyzing fear. Bad anxiety comes when you do not present a clear vision and expect people to meet ill-defined goals. Bad anxiety is not being transparent and not putting good people in a position to succeed. It is yelling and reiterated rounds of layoffs. Fostering an environment where co-workers steal ideas and snatch credit for a team effort? Big bad anxiety.

Then what is good anxiety? Good anxiety is something that challenges people. Good anxiety is setting stretch goals and working hard to achieve them. It might be challenging a way of working or a preconception — with the intent of improving.

Setting a bold vision and significant goals creates the right type of stress. Never settling for good enough is warranted. And asking difficult questions is good anxiety. People on the receiving end of those questions may feel “put on the spot” — but there is a time when penetrating questions are needed. Asking tough questions when difficult decisions need to be made ensures that people will need to think deeply about what they are recommending and different approaches as well.

As a leader, you need to create a solid base to leap from and have empathy for fears — especially if you do not have the same concerns as others. 

And then you need to create a complete system for success — a framework that allows for folks to go even higher. Because while most people think that the stretchy fabric of the trampoline is what helps propel you into the air, that is not true. It is actually the network of springs attached to the fabric that allows people to soar.

As a founder, you need to eliminate bad anxiety and create space for good anxiety to be embraced. How you seek success while driving healthy fear is the paradox. You get it right by explaining what comes next and how far you expect the team to leap. It also requires being transparent that fear is part of every adventure. We all have some fear of heights.

Read more of The Founder’s Paradox.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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