In unfamiliar, heightened situations, it can be difficult to stay calm and open-minded. Our natural reaction is to stick with what has worked for us in the past. That’s normal, and it can be good in familiar situations. But defaulting to old habits in new situations that demand new solutions is often a recipe for failure. The challenge is that new, high-pressure situations often create a level of anxiety that triggers the very reactions that hold us back, preventing innovation. This is paradox of adaptation: When we really need to learn, change, and adapt, we tend to react with old ways that don’t fit our new situation, leading to bad outcomes. decisions and ineffective solutions.
Navigating turbulent times successfully requires leaders to adopt a sophisticated form of self-mastery that we call Intentionally Calm. “Intentionality” refers to the awareness that you have a choice in how you experience and respond to a situation. “Calm” refers to thinking rationally about how best to respond, without being ruled by old habits.
“Deliberate Calm” is a solution to the paradox of adaptation. It enables leaders to act with intention, creativity, and innovation, even in the most challenging circumstances, and it helps us learn and adapt to new challenges when the stakes are highest. The practice of Intentional Calm – and it is a practice – changes our relationship with uncertainty.
Intentional Calmness in practice
Here is a hypothetical example. Jeff is a marketing director for a consumer products company facing technological and market disruptions as well as sluggish sales. When his boss calls with a warning that his numbers need to improve, he feels pressure, frustration, and anxiety. He responded in the style that had worked for him before, telling her, “I’ll fix it.” He told himself that he needed to redouble his efforts and pull out all the stops to make more sales. Except it is possible that his new reality cannot be solved by the old methods, and that they will keep him in this difficult place. What if the carrots-and-sticks approach that was successful in the past doesn’t work? In this situation, setting new sales goals, building more incentives and consequences for performance, and telling his team to work harder and do better is likely to fail or backfire. And when pushing too hard in the old ways continues to fail, this is when panic can set in, prompting Jeff to pull the same levers harder, rather than adapting a new reality and discovering new solutions.
When Jeff practices Deliberate Calm, he takes a deep breath, assesses his situation, and discusses it frankly with his boss. He admits that he doesn’t have all the answers, that traditional methods don’t work, and that he sees signs that the competitive landscape is making it difficult to maintain sales. He may still be anxious, but he will admit that retreating into the false security of old ways is a form of denial that provides only a brief reprieve. Better to let him face underlying concerns, manage his own discomfort, and open a dialogue about exploring new approaches. He can also suggest ways to find new answers and ask for help in developing new ideas.
Next, he needs to think about how to approach his sales team. In this hypothetical scenario, Jeff’s traditional carrots-and-sticks approach fails, as new approaches are needed to solve new challenges. Instead, he must examine the situation, invite new ideas, and admit that he does not have all the answers. The team may feel stressed, but Jeff can provide some hope and optimism – along with some clear-eyed realism about the situation. He can invite his team to help discover new solutions in a way that promotes creativity and learning without fear of punishment, instead of reactive “more of the same” tactics that show diminishing returns. There are no guarantees, but this response is more likely to result in new solutions and successful outcomes in the face of uncertainty.
Does the practice of Deliberate Calm actually work? Yes. We designed a Deliberate Calm leadership program for a global pharmaceutical company that put 1,450 leaders through weekly practice sessions for approximately 30 minutes per week for 12 weeks, and then measured changes. their behavior and their performance (including self-assessment and assessment of their boss. , teammates, and other colleagues). The results are amazing. Compared to a control group (those who were asked to try to improve the same behavior and outcome, but did not participate in the program), the participants of the capability program showed three times more improvement in the targeted behavior and consequences, including general leadership. performance, adaptation to unplanned situations, optimism, relational effectiveness (eg, empathy, compassion), cooperation and collaboration (eg, improved psychological safety), and the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. In addition, their sense of well-being increased 7.5 times more than the control group. Open comments from participants suggested that they experienced as much benefit in their personal lives as they did at work.
Three skills to develop to become more adaptable
How do you get started? There are three major elements to developing Deliberate Calm:
it’s about learning from experience, experimenting with new tactics, approaching new situations with a growth mindset, seeking and learning from feedback, and applying these lessons in real life. time to new situations. The principle is that leaders must be learners even in the most challenging situations. It’s hard to overestimate how important this is: A meta-analysis of several empirical studies found that adaptability and learning agility were the top predictors of a leader’s performance and potential.
You can build this muscle by, for example, setting your goal every day on how you want to show up in challenging situations. It could be something like: “Instead of trying to have a ready-made answer for all of today’s difficult, unexpected challenges, I will approach them with curiosity and an open mind, inviting multiple perspectives.” Doing this will help you stay open to feedback, learn, and adjust your response to what might otherwise be an unhelpful default reaction.
is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions, and to channel emotions into productive ways of thinking and acting. Research has consistently shown that leaders with greater emotional self-regulation perform better, as do their teams. Before you can control your emotional responses, you must first know what causes them and what these responses tell you, because they can provide important information.
Try keeping a journal for a few days, writing down the moments where you feel emotionally triggered, and describe your thoughts, body sensations, and actions in that situation. After a week, you will have several of these entries, and you can start to see a pattern. The more you do this, the easier it is to discern between an emotional response. That’s when you start to regulate, learning not only to process unhelpful emotions but also to be comfortable with the discomfort they bring.
is the integration of internal circumstances (experiences, thoughts, emotions, and responses) and external (an objective reading of the situation and what it requires). We combine two important things — the awareness of our own emotions, assumptions, and reactive habits, especially under pressure, and the nature of the situation we face. By taking a moment to examine ourselves and the situation, we can better understand not only our true motivations and intentions, but also what the situation requires, and how our habits and tendencies serve us this time. This makes it possible to observe yourself in action – and then match your responses to the demands of the moment.
This is where practicing emotional regulation comes in. The more you know your own reasons, as well as what you have to learn along the way, the more you will be able to stop and reflect on what the situation calls for. Even just asking, “What is needed in this situation? What would help the most with this problem?” in and of itself is a technique to control your own emotions. The flexible back and forth between reflecting on the situation and reflecting on what you need to solve it is not only an effective response to the situation, it is also an effective response to prepare yourself for success in the moment. that time.
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During the times of change and systemic change, you can learn to master all three of the above skills with meditation, healthy habits, awareness, and practice. Change is hard, and big change is even harder. Often we need to create a strong sense of urgency to motivate people – however the “burning platform” that motivates people to actually change can also create a more reactive environment where those people struggle to learn, change, and adapt. Intentional Calm helps us thrive in uncertain times. It is not once and done; Deliberate Calm must be learned and relearned so that the adaptability paradox loses its force. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it sure does make better. When leaders are creative, innovative, and open, their entire organization benefits.