NOTE: Republished from original location on The Leader Journey site.
I tend to have time when I see themes of leadership reminders in my life. The last few weeks have been the essential role of practicing calm, being calm, and spreading calm when things are hard in an organization or on a team.
I was listening to Dr. Brené Brown's podcast on the hardest feedback she ever received with her sister Barrett; I won't spoiler, but the phrase "calm as a superpower" came out of it. (Highly recommend her podcast. This episode is available here. (Brown, 2021). As I listened to this podcast, I kept chanting "calm is contagious" (as stated by Barrett). I then went and wrote it on a post it note and put it where I could be reminded of the mantra.
Then I was reflecting on my greatest mentors, and came to the conclusion that two of the most influential for me were the two that role modeled calm in stressful situations. Both of them were leaders while I was stationed in another country during busy times, and both of them were a breath of fresh air when everyone else was tense, dragging people in different directions, and too busy with busyness to stop and realize the energy they were spreading to others. Both of them are leaders that I have continued to talk about -- their ability to bring calm to stressful situations. For one of them, the teams had been working 12+ hours, nonstop for months, and it was as simple as letting the team take a breath for a day. For the other, it didn't matter what level of chaos I brought to his office, he responded calmly with questions and typically a "we are going to be okay" smile. I remember thinking ... how do I learn to lead like THAT? How do I tune in to when people need calm and how do I bring calm to an individual or a group of individuals that need to know everything will be okay - or maybe in the last 18 months, we will work together to get through this (this being so much in our world in 2020 and 2021).
Then, my daughter opened a fortune cookie about calm ... so the world was pointing me to the need to reflect on calm, how it can be spread (or not), and leadership development. I honestly don't think that admirable state of calm is something that many of us naturally do. (I should probably do find or do that research.) I remember as an Air Force ROTC cadet being told, "Officers never run." (That wasn't a poke at a lack of physical fitness; it was meant to send a signal that if an officer is showing signs of distress, then everyone who sees them will also become distressed ... even when that stress or distress might have nothing to do with them or even work.). But, hearing a slogan and actually living the practice are quite a bit different.
One of the concepts that I deeply value as a leader is the idea of "emotional contagion." Emotional contagion is defined as, "the transfer of one person’s emotions and triggered behaviors to another person, who will experience similar emotions and triggered behaviors in response" (Emotional Contagion Theory Explained). This could be the grumpy boss (or partner or child) that storms about, clearly sending a message of not being approachable. (And many times this could lead to a story in the head of those watching about why the mood or reaction.)
Okay ... so anyone who is reading probably knows that calm is good and likely has experienced the emotional contagion that can happen in many spaces, but especially from leaders to teams. How do you build a practice of calm? Below are three "in the moment" steps, but I'll have to write more about leader self care and cultivating the conditions to more easily practice calm. Because I do believe for many of us calm IS a practice.
Many of us have likely heard the quote by Victor Frankl, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." The first step is to pause. There is an excellent book that goes in to a lot of detail about what the author refers to as "The Pause Principle" that I revisit periodically because of its tools and techniques. (More on that another time.)
A few potential actions you can take to create a pause habit:
Does taking a deep breath help you?
Does a question prompt like "Tell me more." help create space for a more productive response?
Does grabbing a pen and paper or notebook help you create space?
Creating contagious calm isn't about never having an emotion, never asking a question, or never having a reaction. Instead it is about being intentional about the response.
If you are angry, should you step out of the moment?
Were you just handed a huge problem that you aren't sure how to fix?
Are you already having a tough day and this was just added to it?
Then, ask yourself...what is the result of what I say or do next?
What might happen if I respond defensively?
What might happen if I respond dismissively?
What might happen if I respond with a joke to attempt to be funny or bring levity?
What is your desired intentional response?
Then respond accordingly. (I say that as if it is an easy, natural response. Let's admit that isn't true.) Realistically, we all need people who help us tune in to our natural responses, so we can then work on shaping them in to the responses we have. Not that we want to respond like someone else, but many of our natural human responses to problems, bad news, etc. are not necessarily the responses that will build psychological safety and trust in relationships. (Dr. Amy Edmondson refers to this as "responding productively." Her research laid out in her book, "The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth" is another "must read" book for those seeking to learn more about psychological safety. She outlines very tangible ways to do it - and it is in these moments when displaying calm and other productive responses can help to build psychological safety with a person or in a team.
This week I was reminded that calm is contagious, AND that calm in leadership situations is many times a practice. One that can be considered, honed, and perfected, especially in times with so much uncertainty and ambiguity. Be the leader you would want to bring a problem to.
Questions to consider:
1) How would others describe your emotional contagion?
2) If you don't like the answer above, how might you shift the emotions you are spreading around?
3) If you do like the answer, what habits help you to remain calm under pressure or stress or in uncertain times?
4) When you bring your leader something hard, what is your desired response from them?
Brown, B. (Host). (2021, September 20). Brené with Barrett Guillen on the Hardest Feedback I’ve Ever Received, Part 1 of 2. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-barrett-guillen-on-the-hardest-feedback-ive-ever-received-part-1-of-2/
Emotional Contagion Theory Explained (n.d.) Available here: Emotional Contagion Theory Explained - HRF (healthresearchfunding.org).