An exploration into the nature and impact of anxiety in Senior Management Teams

  • Heather Chisholme

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The aim of the research reported in this thesis was to explore the nature and impact of anxiety in Senior Management teams confronted by organisational change. There was a desire to move beyond an understanding of management from a tactical, systems or organizing perspective, to one which investigated the causes and reaction to emotion, in particular anxiety, and the implications for managers, groups and organizations. The research was limited to a focus on the causes, manifestations and exploration of individual and group anxiety.

    The studies reported in this thesis have addressed two main research questions. First, what is the nature and impact of anxiety in senior management teams? Second, what are the effects of anxiety on learning and change within these teams? A multiple case study approach was used because this was seen as particularly beneficial for exploring the nature and impact of anxiety in senior management teams across a number of organizations. The nature of exploration necessitated an approach that was not bounded by a reliance on theories embedded in positivist approaches to scientific understanding, but rather required the development of individual and participatory group experiences through interpretation and constructivist enquiry.

    Participants represented the senior management groups of each company and thus represented the controlling interests of the local businesses. There was evidence that participants in the study were experiencing anxiety during heightened periods of business change. The studies revealed how responses to anxiety resulted in a number of social defences against anxiety. The studies indicated that perceptions of environmental emotional safety and identity with a leader affected the ability of managers to engage in reflective behaviours and collaborative approaches. Power and politics emerged as themes in the studies, with individuals struggling at times with notions of control, individual authority and understanding of the boundaries of power between participants. There were also implications for the impact of bounded rationality and learning acceptance.

    The thesis is seen as a potential contribution towards a deeper understanding of a little researched area of anxiety in individual managers and in management groups, and the impact of anxiety on learning and change at individual, group and organizational levels. Thus, it may offer opportunities to contribute to a deeper understanding of the links between anxiety, learning and change on aspects of management and organizational learning. Developing a deeper understanding of the practice of management and its impact on the organization has the potential to assist the development of learning pathways which encounter these phenomena and engage with them in a didactic way by way of a point of optimal learning.

    The Point of Optimal Learning is introduced in the literature review of the thesis where a potential gap in existing knowledge is identified. In this thesis it is proposed that there exists an opportunity in the learning of individuals to manage the tension between rational and emotional responses to events, creating moments of optimal learning as rational and emotional responses are kept in balance.

    The interpretations emanating from how individual managers within senior management teams deal with change, and the implementation of collective awareness, has the potential to contribute towards an integrated understanding of the implementation and outcomes of organizational change. It is suggested that the exploration of such phenomena as group trust and openness; personal and institutional change; and confrontation of the inhibitors to change whether consciously or unconsciously constructed, have the potential to support a learning methodology which has implications for other organizations at a time of change. By exploring the causes of individual and organization resistance to change encountered in this research, practitioners may evolve an approach which builds upon the areas of understanding developed herein.

    During the analysis phase of the research herein reported, three new models for interpreting the data, and a diagrammatic summary of the causes of management anxiety considered in the research, were developed and presented. They are: the anxiety causation diagram that informed the structured interview design.; he models developed for the purposes of data analysis and that were seen to extend prior models; and the development of a triangulation model that was seen to extend understanding beyond individual case phenomena. These models may be seen as contributing to different methodological approaches for future research, and thus may be seen to make a significant contribution to knowledge. The conclusion to the thesis discusses the implications for the action researcher, organizations and participants undergoing significant periods of change, and provides suggestions for further research.
    Date of Award3 Sep 2009
    Original languageEnglish


    • Anxiety
    • Executives
    • Organizational change

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