Deliberate Calm: A Practice to Improve Adaptability

We’ve all learned to be resilient. COVID taught us that if nothing else. We’ve learned to get back up after a setback, keep pressing forward, put in the time, do the work and carry on. The problem is, that’s no longer enough. 

Think back to a couple of months ago, before the holidays. You were trying to wrap up a million projects at work before heading out on vacation, while juggling shopping for presents, preparing to host your relatives or travel. Your attention was divided as you bounced from task to task. You might have lost your temper, forgotten recent conversations or slept poorly

Burnout can limit adaptability.

This happens to many of us throughout the year. A recent McKinsey Health Institute survey found that, “On average, a quarter of employees [from the 15 countries surveyed] report experiencing burnout symptoms.” 

To exacerbate the problem, much of what we’re facing today may be unfamiliar—supply chain challenges, economic uncertainty, accelerated adoption of technology in business. We need to be able to think with an open mind, develop awareness, learn how to regulate stress and emotions, access the executive functioning part of our brain, innovate and learn to succeed in high-stakes, unfamiliar situations. 

According to scientific research, when our brains predict danger, our “fight-or-flight” response is triggered. As stress rises, the prefrontal cortex—which is involved in executive functions like planning, working memory, emotion processing and cognitive flexibilitycan become challenged. At the very moments when we most need to learn and adapt, we physically can’t. 

What is deliberate calm?

The good news is there is a way to interrupt this cycle, make better decisions under stress and lessen the experience of burnout: deliberate calm. “Deliberate” refers to the choice you have in how you experience and react to any given situation. “Calm” refers to staying focused and present under pressure, amidst volatility, without being swept away by your instinctive reactions. Deliberate calm improves your ability to rise to the occasion and act with intention and purpose during the most stressful, unfamiliar situations we can imagine. 

Benefits of practicing deliberate calm

If you learn to practice deliberate calm, you’ll first learn to achieve dual awareness—an understanding of what you’re thinking, feeling and experiencing on the inside and what’s happening around you, on the outside. You’ll learn to read situations objectively to determine what’s most needed in each one and avoid falling into your reflexive traps. 

Next, through the practice of deliberate calm—and it is a practice that must be done regularly over time—you’ll build emotional self-regulation skills and learn agility, even during periods of high stress. 

This approach goes beyond the familiar and important idea of resilience (“the ability to bounce back,” according to Forbes). It fosters adaptability, which is more about taking a challenge and turning it into an opportunity to advance (bouncing forward). “In the workplace, higher levels of adaptability are associated with greater levels of learning ability and better performance, confidence and creative output,” according to a McKinsey article. In fact, adaptability is an important factor of individual performance. Adaptability is also crucial for psychological well-being, linked to higher levels of overall life satisfaction and improved mental health

Deliberate calm teaches adaptability skills, and we have seen precisely these outcomes in our work with global companies. Through deliberate calm, we can change admiration into action and accomplishment. 

Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock

Jacqui Brassey, based in Luxembourg, is a co-leader at the McKinsey Health Institute, Senior Knowledge Expert People and Organization Performance in McKinsey & Company, Academic Researcher VU Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Adjunct Professor IE University Madrid, Spain and Supervisory Board Member Save the Children NL. She is a core researcher and practitioner in sustainable human development and performance; passionate about helping individuals and organizations thrive by promoting improved mental health, well-being, agility and resilience.

Aaron De Smet is a Senior Partner in McKinsey & Company’s New Jersey Office specializing in transforming large institutions to improve organizational health and performance. Over 25 years, Aaron has served clients across industries, with an emphasis on organizational culture, change management, leadership development, decision making and operating model transformation. He has a Ph.D. in social and organizational psychology from Columbia University, and has written extensively on a range of organizational topics.

Michiel Kruyt, based in the Netherlands, is a board room consultant with deep expertise in top team development, performance culture transformations and leadership development. He is the former CEO of Imagine, former McKinsey partner, founder of Aberkyn Change Partnership and former Unilever executive.

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