About This Episode
Over the years, I’ve noticed that people often gravitate towards working with leaders who exude a calm demeanor. At the same time, they tend to push people who they feel are just way too volatile to work with. This is especially true when things are tough.
Why do we find it easier—even more desirable—to work with people who are calm versus those who appear very stressed?
In the book she co-authored, Deliberate Calm, Jacqui Brassey shared her “confidence crisis”—a time late in her career when she experienced debilitating anxiety and stress that she felt was hindering her from reaching her full potential.
As a researcher and practitioner in sustainable human development and performance and someone who has always been fascinated by the human brain and mind under stress, this confidence crisis she went through served as motivation and inspiration in her work.
We all know how important self-care is in order to succeed, but it seems that despite our knowledge, we still find value in the “grind” and the “always-on” culture we currently live in. We pride ourselves on being busy and wearing our exhaustion like a badge of honor, even when we know it is impossible to show up as our best selves when we are running ourselves ragged to the ground.
As leaders and business owners, it is important to be at our best. We know that dozens, or even hundreds or thousands, of people’s—our people’s—livelihoods depend on us. How do we exude that deliberate calm that gives our people a sense of stability, especially when the situation calls for it? As with all things, it begins with awareness.
The role of the individual
Humans are biological beings. Most of our basic responses to things such as stressful events are deeply embedded in our DNA. But we are also the species blessed with the ability to engage the world around us and within us rationally.
We know that when we are calm, it is easier for us to make important and difficult decisions. But under stress and in challenging situations, when we need to make those important and difficult decisions the most, it's harder to do—when we experience stress, our brain and our body potentially shut down.
That’s because we are wired to focus on managing stress: processing emotions or trying to get control of a situation for survival is one of our default instincts.
“We like to be able to predict situations. We love predictability. And so, it becomes harder to stay calm,” Jacqui says.
But we need that calmness to respond in a way that serves our situation best.
There are a lot of tools available to us in order to train our minds into getting into that deliberate calmness.
Awareness is key to this.
Knowing your triggers and how to manage your stress response to those triggers is crucial to this. Psychology has come up with many ways and healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress, and one of those is to label your triggers. When you give something a name, it is easier to identify it, define it, explain it, and have control over it.
Being able to talk about your anxiety also helps. As social beings, knowing that we are not alone in experiencing stress and anxiety comforts us a lot. As rational beings, knowing that science is there to help explain why we feel distressed and what we can do to manage it helps remove the feelings of shame that some of us feel when we are vulnerable.
We know that the brain and body are connected. When we are stressed, there is a top-down effect: your brain activates your sympathetic nervous system, which affects how you feel and how you respond to real or perceived threats and stressors.
But there is also a bottom-up connection.
When we take care of our bodies through routines (sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, etc.) and learn ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (breathing, meditation, grounding yourself, etc.), we are able to raise the stress threshold that our minds and bodies can tolerate.
While working hard and putting in the effort is part of the equation, in order to really set yourself up for success, you also need to factor in the time for rest and recovery.
Self-care should be intentional. No one else would do it for you but yourself. Plan for breaks, prioritize your personal time, and have space for recovery.
“Think about what is important, what matters, and put boundaries around it,” Jacqui says. That includes self-care as much as time for yourself or your loved ones or space to get creative for your business and passions.
Reflect and set your intentions when you begin or end your day (or both) and visualize how you want your day to be.
“The brain is always predicting,” Jacqui shares. “Our response to any situation is based on prediction until we have learned that it's something else. …if you learn that there are more possibilities, you reframe your thoughts; then it gives you a broader repertoire of what is possible if you are in distress.”
There is no way to predict everything that will happen or what curveballs life will throw at you every day, but you can take control by being more intentional and visualizing how you want to respond to show up in a calm way. This helps you get out of reaction mode and set yourself up to win the day.
The role of the organization
As leaders, we also play a role in creating healthy environments within our organizations so that our people can thrive.
During her research while writing the book, two important data points left a huge impression on Jacqui as to how organizations play a huge role in stress and how to help workers navigate a volatile world with deliberate calm.
When responding to the survey, 15 countries' worth of respondents participated, according to a study by McKinsey:
- 1 out of 4 employees was experiencing burnout, and
- 1 out of 3 employees was feeling “distress” (which was a precursor to stress and burnout)
Those statistics indicate that the majority of the working population is in a state of protection or working in “survival mode” most of the time due to stress. This begs the question - “What is happening in organizations around the globe?”
One of the most common drivers of stress in the workplace is toxic workplace behavior.
And according to Jacqui, science has proven that when we are under stress, we experience a bit of tunnel vision, which makes it hard to create or learn new things, and it also makes us behave in ways that are unkind, incorrect, or even unethical.
Stress, pressure, restlessness, and exhaustion are also predictive of potential sickness, absenteeism, or prolonged leaves of absence.
How can we create environments that prioritize our employees’ health and well-being, and where people can thrive? How can we become better leaders in a world that is changing rapidly?
Create a culture that promotes inclusivity, safety, psychological safety, and space for growth—where you and your people can make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. Encourage your people to take breaks, protect their boundaries, and prioritize self-care so they can show up for their work, for themselves, and for their loved ones at 100%.
Equip and empower your people so they can grow and deal with unpredictability. Provide them the knowledge and tools to help them manage and deal with stress, and create avenues where they can face conflict in healthy, psychologically safe, and productive ways.
Lastly, lead by example. Empower yourself to handle volatility as an individual so that you can serve as a role model and be a better leader for the organization.
Why “deliberate calm” matters
Calmness is important, not just in decision-making.
We also learn faster and are capable of being more creative and innovative when we are in a calm space. Plus, it affects how we relate to other people as well.
It is crucial for leaders to develop this resilience, to be deliberately calm in stressful situations, because it is our responsibility to make difficult decisions, act as role models in learning, be the source of stability in otherwise unstable situations, spearhead innovation and creation, and create psychologically safe environments for the people we are leading.
And in a world that is rapidly changing, the organizations we lead also need to change in order to better serve the community and the larger world at large.
Listen to the podcast to learn more, and grab your copy of Jacqui’s book, “Deliberate Calm,” on Amazon now!
DISCLAIMER: The people interviewed are well-trained experts and highly skilled in their areas of practice. They take many safety precautions prior to attempting the activities described. The activities or research discussed in these podcasts should not be attempted without qualified supervision and training with professionals.