Has it ever happened to you that you are relaxed, composed and in control working by yourself, but become agitated and anxious when someone is monitoring your work? The individual (most likely your manager) may not be rude or dictatorial, and no evident circumstance was created to make you feel uneasy or nervous. Simply the idea of someone overseeing your work makes one anxious and results in committing errors.
Have you ever been in a situation like this?
Yes, is most likely the answer!
“It is highly typical to feel uncomfortable/ anxious when someone is watching you, especially an authority figure”, according to Dr. Signe A. Dayhoff, a Social Psychologist, Cognitive Behaviorist, and a leading authority on Transforming Social Anxiety into Social Competence. You do not have to be socially anxious to feel like this. We have all been taught to respect all authorities, particularly our bosses. As a result, we develop a sense of shame over the risk of getting caught doing something wrong or against the authorities’ wishes. Also, it is a natural human need to be liked by others, particularly by someone who is superior to us (in terms of power, position, and status) and who evaluates our performance.
Because we consider ourselves unworthy in comparison, we end up giving people in positions of authority more value and power. It can make us believe that anyone in power has the right to judge our work or us as a whole. Our performance degrades as a result of our thoughts and emotions being in sync with our self-esteem. Rather than concentrating on being as productive as possible, our minds are continuously dissecting everything that happens at work, wondering what it means and how we will screw it up. And now we are unduly concerned about what our boss could say. As a result of anticipating unfavorable results, we tend to get more anxious and make more mistakes as we become more aware of our actions and strive to prevent making the same mistakes.
Social Inhibition at the Workplace:
This incident mentioned earlier is an excellent example of Social Inhibition- a well-studied concept in Social Psychology. It is commonly observed that the mere presence of other people either as an audience or as co-actors can
influence our performance on many tasks.
Social Inhibition occurs when the performance on a task is impaired in the presence of others. But, when there is an improvement in the performance of a task in the presence of others compared to our performance when alone, is known as Social Facilitation. The performance improvement is based on the type of the task and required skills. Usually, people experience social facilitation when they are familiar with a task or have well-learned skills. The opposite to that is Social Inhibition occurs when the performance inferred in the presence of others occurs when one is performing difficult or novel tasks.
Why does one experience Social Inhibition?
The Drive Theory of Social Facilitation (Zajonc,1965) brings a unique perspective to the discussion of Social Inhibition. It states that being in the presence of others causes physiological arousal to rise, allowing any dominant response to emerging. The dominant response will be well-learned in this situation. It suggests that the presence of others will enhance one’s performance if they are highly skilled at it or will hinder one’s performance if they are not highly skilled or performing novel or difficult tasks.
The concept of Evaluation Apprehension, on the other hand, states that an individual’s performance is influenced by their concerns of being judged by the audience. According to Cottrell (1968), the fear of being judged is more significant than the presence of other individuals. As the approval and disapproval, we received are frequently based on others’ evaluations, the presence of others activates our assessment anxiety, which has an impact on our performance.
Now, according to the Distraction Conflict perspective (Barron, 1986), social facilitation/inhibition happens because of a conflict faced by the performer to pay attention to other people (audience) and the task at hand. Cognitive overload might occur as a result of this divided attention. As a result of cognitive overload, people tend to focus on only one thing at a time, which inhibits performance. Studies by Hazel Markus (1978) have shown depending on circumstances such as authority, attention being paid to performance and task difficulty,working with others can either improve or impede performance.
Students in the passive presence of another person reduced the number of body movements, hand motions, and paralinguistic sounds, according to a study conducted in the United States and Australia. Both laboratory research and a field trial have confirmed this finding. The effect did not change as the experiment became more severe, but it vanished when the person in the room was unable to see the participant. (Guerin, 1988)
What did I find?
To better understand the reasons for anxiety caused by the mere presence of others, I asked my LinkedIn network a key question: Have they ever felt anxious when someone oversees their work, and if so, what is/was the cause?
I discovered that 50% of people fear authority/evaluation when given four reasons to choose from. Divided attention affects 22.2 % of people. Self-anxiety is also seen to affect 22.2 % of people. In addition, 5.6 % of those polled stated that they had another reason but did not elaborate.
This small-scale LinkedIn Poll indicates that people frequently experience fear of authority/ /evaluation even in the mere presence of others. Some people struggle with anxiety, which makes them more likely to be nervous about working in front of others Some people struggle with anxiety, which makes them more likely to be nervous about working in front of others. Few people have difficulty focusing on the task at hand and the presence of others around them, and their work suffers as a result of this divided attention.
Here are a few signs that your Employee is anxious or tense at work include:
- Taking more days off than normal
- Irritation, poor attention, and decreased productivity
- Relationships at home or work are deteriorating
- Becoming moodier or over-reactive to what others say
- ·Starting to act in ways that are out of the ordinary
- Physical reactions such as exaggerated startle reaction, sweating, palpitations, shaking or trembling, shaky voice, tiredness, or fatigue
- Being negative, depressed, and anxious most of the time
- Looking trapped or frustrated
The following are some of the likely causes of anxiety and stress when someone begins to oversee his work:
- A sudden realization that your work is being observed (shock reaction) Fear of being
- Fear of criticism
- Fear of being judged (Performance anxiety)
- A recent warning or bad feedback (Fear of losing the job)
- Fear of embarrassment or humiliation as a result of his actions
- Fear that people may notice his nervousness
- Struggling with anxiety and related concerns, and thus more likely to feel anxious and stressed in a similar circumstance, with many more possibilities to trace his anxious behavior back to its source
So, in such a situation one should:
- Concentrate on the manager’s humanity rather than his power.
- Pay attention to how your body is reacting, learn to relax and control your nerves.
Simple things you as a Boss/Manager can do to help employees feel less anxious at work include:
- Do proper research on your observation before addressing it to employees
- Understand the business factors that may cause concern
- Maintain realistic work-expectations
- Give time to high-performing employees
- Expect off days from everybody dealing with any form of anxiety/ stress
- Encourage your employer to add health and wellness programs (yoga or meditation or another kind of exercise) and encourage your employees to use that wellness programs
- Encourage physical exercises, meditation, vacations, and hobbies
- Separate yourself from fear and anxiety and concentrate on the pleasant things.
After all, this, let’s return to the Packing guy’s story, now what makes more sense: heightened physiological arousal leading to the dominating response, the fear of being judged, or cognitive overload owing to divided attention? OR he was simply having a bad day!! It might be anything or a combination of all of them. But one thing is certain: Other people’s presence can influence our behavior, especially.
- Baron, R. A., Branscombe, N.R. (2011). Social Psychology. USA: Pearson.
Cuncic, A. (2020, November 18). What is Social Facilitation? Verywell Mind.
- Dayhoff, S., & Dayhoff, S. (2011, April 28). Fear of Authority Figures in the Workplace Isn’t
Just Social Anxiety. EzineArticles.
https://ezinearticles.com/?Fear-of-Authority-Figures-in the-Workplace-Isnt Just-Social Anxiety&id=6123777
- Guerin, B. (1988, March 2). Social Inhibition of Behavior. The Journal of Social Psychology. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00224545.1989.9711723
- Madden, B. (2017, April 20). 10 signs your employees might be suffering from stress. Citation.
- Mcleod, S. A. (2011, October 24). Social Facilitation. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Social-Facilitation.html
- Merritt, T. (2018, May 31). Top 5: Ways to help employees with anxiety issues.TechRepublic.
- Stangor, C. (2014, September 26). Group Performance – Principles of Social Psychology – 1st International Edition. Pressbooks. https://opentextbc.ca/socialpsychology/chapter/group-process-the-pluses-and-minuses-of-working-together/
MA Industrial and Organisational Psychology
HR Executive at AAiS Global, Pune