Jacqueline Brassey is a professor, researcher, and chief scientist in the field of Sustainable Human Development and Performance at McKinsey & Company. She is also the director of research science for People and Organizational Performance at McKinsey, and a global leader with the McKinsey Health Institute.
Aaron De Smet is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company and has led the firm’s thinking on organizational health and leadership. He earned his Ph.D. in social and organizational psychology at Columbia University and was the McKinsey team that developed the Organizational Health Index (OHI) and OrgLab.
Michiel Kruyt is the CEO of Imagine.one and a former partner at McKinsey and Company where he focused on large-scale transformations, culture change, and top team and leadership development.
Below, Jacqueline shares 5 key insights from their new book, Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World. Listen to the audio version—read by Jacqueline—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. As human beings, we need to effectively master the adaptability paradox.
When you most need to learn and change, you stick with what you know, often in a way that stifles learning, innovation, and taking care of yourself. You are wired to do what works based on what has worked in the past. This is often a very helpful strategy. However, what happens when the rules of the game change, and you are still playing the old game by the old rules?
You are biologically wired to apply habitual reactions to high-stakes situations even when evolving your approach is needed. In uncertain and high-pressured situations, you default to what you know, often limiting your ability to be creative, learn, and adapt. By becoming aware of, and open to change, you can make the right decisions in the moment. That’s when you can respond effectively to the adaptability paradox and subsequently be in the lead, as opposed to being overwhelmed by it.
2. Learning deliberate calm can help us thrive in periods of crisis and great uncertainty when the stakes are high.
The first step to overcoming your default response is becoming aware of the situation you are in and how you are responding to it. In neuroscience, two words that are related to this are exteroception, which is information that you perceive from your outside world, and interoception, which is becoming aware of how you are feeling internally, in your mind and body. These two sources of information interact with each other without you being aware of it.
“When you have insight in the moment, you can anticipate, interrupt, or override your default response when you realize that another response is better suited.”
Becoming aware of these two sources of information simultaneously, while effectively responding to them, is what we call “dual awareness.” It is the awareness of the outside world and situation you are in, as well as the awareness of your internal state and your response pattern.
When you have insight in the moment, you can anticipate, interrupt, or override your default response when you realize that another response is better suited. In addition to awareness, bringing curiosity, emotion regulation, and learning agility into the mix will help you to respond effectively. Studies have shown that these skills are connected to improved performance, better leadership, confidence, innovation, creative output, health, well-being, and overall life satisfaction.
3. Deliberate calm is a practice and a lifestyle, not a quick fix.
You have to build your ability to be aware of your internal and external situations and respond calmly over time. You also have to learn to practice these two things together, by learning how to pause briefly to interrupt habituated reactions, and then taking stock internally and externally.
Internally concerns self-awareness, emotional self-regulation, learning to learn, and to check in with yourself, your mind, and body—understanding what is going on for you in the moment.
“Awareness that both internal and external worlds are constantly in a dance with each other helps you to choose the appropriate response for yourself and find what is needed in the moment.”
Externally is situational awareness which is about stepping out on the balcony to understand broader patterns and opportunities, asking what this situation is asking of you and of your team. This together creates magic. Awareness that both internal and external worlds are constantly in a dance with each other helps you to choose the appropriate response for yourself and find what is needed in the moment. It is the ability to discover a more optimal response in the most challenging, uncertain, and volatile of circumstances. Over time, you can learn and optimize, not only for work outcomes, but for personal outcomes.
This awareness helps you stay grounded in your humanity. Learning these skills can assist with building a personal operating model that offers the best foundations for your development. This operating model includes taking care of your recovery and yourself. Deliberate calm is not only a practice, it is an ongoing lifestyle.
4. Deliberate calm is dynamic, and is useful in any context and situation.
Deliberate calm comes alive even in the smallest experiences during your day. Examples include when you open your calendar, you are in the board meeting deciding on the next company strategy, making budget decisions, or navigating a family crisis. Even little things during your day can default your stress response when a calm deliberate response would have been better for you personally as well as for the situation.
“The challenges keep coming—often simultaneously.”
The world is getting more volatile, faster-paced, more uncertain, and more surprising. The challenges keep coming—often simultaneously. You can’t slow down the pace or eliminate disruptive curve balls, but you can change your relationship with change and turbulence. In doing, you may see opportunity in adversity! As the famous racing driver, Ayrton Senna says, “You cannot overtake 15 cars in sunny weather, but you can when it’s raining.”
5. The benefits of deliberate calm are staggering, and everyone can learn these skills that will never be outdated.
If you master deliberate calm, you not only help yourself but also the teams you lead to become more effective, fulfilled, creative, and successful. In a recent study amongst a few thousand participants from a pharmaceutical company, employees engaging in a deliberate-calm-inspired adaptability training experienced three times more improvement in leadership dimensions according to the corresponding multi-rater surveys. This means the results were observed by participants themselves, as well as colleagues they work with.
Leadership dimensions that were measured included performance in role, sustainment of well-being, successfully adapting to unplanned circumstances, optimism, and development of new knowledge and skills. Moreover, participants also reported seven times more improvement in well-being than those in the control group.
To listen to the audio version read by co-author Jacqueline Brassey, download the Next Big Idea App today: