Keeping Calm: Take Care of Yourself to Manage Stress & Reduce Anxiety
The world is getting more volatile by the day, which means leaders have to adapt faster than ever to new challenges. I’m Chester Elton and this is my co-author and dear friend Adrian Gostick. When we face change, most of us tend to stick with behaviors we know. We often stifle innovation and growth. How do we avoid this trap? That’s what we’re going to talk about today with our guest. We hope that the time you spend with us will help remove the stigma of anxiety and mental health in the workplace and your personal life. With us is our new friend Jacqueline Brassey. She’s a PhD, the co-leader of the McKinsey Health Institute and a senior expert in the area of people and organizational performance. She is also a research fellow at VU Amsterdam, an adjunct professor at IE University in Spain in the area of sustainable human development and performance and serves as a supervisory board member of Save the Children in the Netherlands. Her latest two books are Deliberate Calm from Harper Business and Authentic Confidence from VMN Media Netherlands. Welcome to the show, Jackie. We’re delighted to have you on the podcast.
Thank you so much it’s such a pleasure to be here.
We’ve never had anybody from Luxembourg, so delighted to have you on the program today, Jackie. You say in your new book, Deliberate Calm, that we’re biologically wired to react to stress by clinging to our old ways. You’ve got a term for it: the adaptability paradox. Walk us through this and how we can remedy it.
Great question. The adaptability paradox summarizes that when we most need to learn and adapt, it’s the hardest to do so. That relates to the current situation in the marketplace and in many organizations where we experience a lot of change and volatility. There is a lot of unpredictability, and we lack predictability and like control. If we do not have that, it can cause stress and we tend to default on what we already know. The paradox is that we need to learn how to get out of that situation so we can keep an open brain and mind for what is needed in the moment, while at the same time this is the hardest to do because of the stress and pressure, that’s the paradox.
Interesting. Adrian and I are big sports fans and I love that you say what can leaders learn from athletes. Elite athletes have this heightened state of flow. We talk about being in the flow or they’ll say the game slows down. They can see things that mere mortals can’t. Can you explain that to us who aren’t elite athletes and how we might get there?
Sure. The analogy can be helpful to learn from because athletes have learned to practice the same activity many times that they need to apply in sports. For example, tennis: the forehand, backhand. They have learned this skill and they’ve practiced by repetition. But the moment that matters is when they are in a match and when the stakes are high. That’s when the learned skill that they have practiced before needs to be perfect. In our book, we talk about how leaders may experience high-stakes situations, but it’s familiar territory. That is a bit analogous to what top athletes focus on. The rules of the game don’t change. What they need to do is manage stress and focus on reducing the stress and the interference of stress and just focus on what they know. That is when you can go into the flow. That is what we’re talking about.
What is the difference between being in the flow and muscle memory? You talk about lots of repetition. I grew up in a tennis family and you hit 10,000 tennis balls, you’re gonna get better. I’m trying to get the difference between you saying managing the stress and the flow and just hitting a ball like this 10 thousand times. It’s muscle memory. What’s the difference?
Well, it’s the muscle memory that can be undirected, but being in the flow is also being purposeful and focused on delivering and performing. It’s a space where you can perform well, where you can accelerate and slow down, but also where you can perform at your best. It doesn’t mean you don’t experience stress, but it’s not interfering. You go outside of your brain and into that embodiment of that performance that you know. Muscle memory can also be a default reaction, but it’s unguided. It can still happen under stress because you can’t manage it at the moment and your reaction may come out in stress. But that is not the flow. That means you may miss or not perform. This is a focused form of performance and getting into a state of high performance.
Thank you. I want to think about employees for a moment. As I was reading your material, it made me think. A lot of the people we’ve interviewed for our work spend a lot of time worrying what’s going to happen if they make a mistake. We’re going through a time of where employees had all the power and now things are starting to turn. We’re seeing some layoffs with tech companies. People are petrified of making a mistake. But you’re saying we have to reframe our thinking. We have to be confident and that’s a prerequisite for doing our job. How do we do this? People can’t grow if they’re not confident and taking a risk. But they also have this fear of making mistakes. How do we get through that?
It’s hard. It’s not an easy situation for many people and it may continue to be unpredictable and hard. Before I say something about how we can do that, I want to emphasize that in the research and the work that I do at the McKinsey Health Institute, we also call for action of organizations and a leadership focus to create environments where people can feel safe and be at their best. The onus is not only on the individual. But we talk about individuals and that’s one of the reasons that I wrote a book, Authentic Confidence, and Deliberate Calm serves that purpose too. If you are in a situation that is uncertain, how can you help yourself? We talk about authentic confidence, Adrian, which is different from just confidence. We explain that it is helpful to become comfortable with discomfort. You can do that if you are connected to your purpose and your values. If you leverage a mindset that helps you to learn and grow, but also helps you to deal with mistakes. You want to learn from them and if they have repercussions, you know you chose to learn and mistakes are part of that. If you are in an environment that doesn’t accept that, then it’s important to reflect on whether you want to stay or not. But for you individually, to be accepting of mistakes, you can do that by aligning with what matters to you and being okay with embracing them.
Learning and development for me is wonderful when I learn something new. I love it. But making mistakes is still not easy. That’s where I was when you were talking. It sounds great unless I’m in a place where they say, “Stand up and tell everybody how you messed up this week.” And I’m put on the spot for making a mistake. There are environments like that. If you find yourself in one of those, you mentioned maybe it’s not the right place. But if you want to fix things, is there a way as an employee? I think that depends if you’re open for it and willing to experiment. There’s a saying in Dutch that goes like this: “The soup is never eaten as hot as it is served.” I don’t know if that translates to English. Sometimes you can do more than you think. It’s all about intent. You can role model, you can experiment in small groups. You may be surprised how inspirational it can be with other people if you start to become close to your values, be vulnerable, but also show your good intent and that you learn from the mistakes. It’s not about just making mistakes, it’s about getting better. One important thing I want to mention: I interviewed a lot of senior leaders for my book and all of them for the Authentic Confidence book said they never got to this place without making mistakes. It’s essential for learning and development. Knowing that may already help.
Interesting. Adrian uses that example of standing up in front of the company and admitting your mistake because that happened to us. That left a deep scar. Adrian, thanks for bringing that. I was almost over that and I saw the eye twitch start again. I would embrace it. Be kind to your scar. That brings us to this concept that you write about: emotional agility. What is that? How can we build that skill? Is it a skill you can build? How can you encourage leaders to do this with their teams?
Yes, it is a skill. It’s based on acceptance and commitment therapy and training, which comes from clinical psychology. It’s evidence-based and it describes a couple of processes that you can learn from: accepting in the moment, diffusing your thoughts, being mindful and so on. Emotional flexibility is about becoming comfortable with the discomfort. When you feel difficult emotions and you become aware of them, how do you respond to them? Do you let these emotions guide whatever you say and do? Or are you able to give them a place and still follow through how you want to? That flexibility is about you being at the steering wheel and not the emotions. You can learn that. As a leader, you can role model it by creating a safe environment where people can make mistakes. Maybe you’re also sometimes emotional and guided by your emotions and then you correct yourself. But it’s a learning process every day. But also being vulnerable and saying we’re all human beings and therefore role model that and talk about that as leaders.
So it’s a skill. We talk often, Adrian and I do a lot of executive coaching. We talk about the power of the pause. Is that part of that? Getting your remote, taking a deep breath before you say anything, pausing for a second and considering. I like that you said I’m in control, not my emotions. You take that cleansing breath as they would say in yoga before you let the hot soup come flying out of your mouth. I’m sure that’s not the saying in Dutch, but you get the visual.
Yes, it makes sense. We talk in our book Deliberate Calm about those five stages of awareness. Sometimes we’re in the moment and also how you can build that awareness. It’s something that you do. It’s like a lifestyle. When you become aware of a sensation or a thought or behavior that is not effective in the moment, that’s where you can take a pause and then decide how to respond. Of course that depends on how well trained you are. It’s not always easy because with high pressure and negative emotion, you also need to process the emotion. Are you able to do that? That’s something you can learn and then you can self-empower. A lot is in that moment. In Deliberate Calm, we talk about those five stages as working towards the moment where you can practice deliberate calm in the moment. So when it happens, you can pause and learn and adapt and all that. As opposed to the early stages of being aware which is often after the moment. You say something and you regret it the next day.
Never done that.
I have, Adrian.
Yeah, I love it. How can people learn more about your work, Jackie? Where would you send them? Well, they can find a lot about me on LinkedIn. I publish all the podcasts and writings over there. In other writings, we talk about people having to fake confidence and leaders need to be more aware when that is going on. We call it the duck syndrome: the idea that people try to look like they’re floating gracefully on the water but underneath they’re paddling like mad. What are some ways that managers can help individuals understand they don’t have to have everything figured out, especially during times of change? How can you get your team to be more vulnerable and admit when they need some help? Well, that’s a process, Adrian. It’s one of course where you role model as a leader and create an environment where it’s safe to be open about that. Next one is do you know your team? How do you build a relationship with your team so that you start understanding people? Then you can explore certain questions or invite people to the table. But everything you do as a response to people trying makes a huge difference. Do you encourage, acknowledge and really see people?
There are multiple things, but it starts with the leader itself. Often leaders underestimate the little things that are seen by people in the team as a potential signal for something. There’s a lot going on in the icebergs of people’s brains. But relationship building is very important as well. What makes people… etc. That vulnerability part and that paying attention and noticing is really key for leaders. In the post-pandemic world, depending on where you live, what do you think is next in your world for people in organizational performance? What should wise and insightful leaders be looking for? I think it is the concept of leading through chaos and adaptability and learning how to do that. We’re in hybrid working space, we’re in uncertainty, we’re in a space of new innovation, creativity and change in organizations. No longer do we as individual leaders have all the answers. We know that for quite a while but now it’s really about making it happen. Learning that is essential. It’s not about having enough skills in my backpack to do the hard side of things. It’s also about how do I connect all the dots together.
Yeah, it’s interesting. I read a great quote from one of the stoics. They say if you want a new idea, read an old book. I think it was Marcus Aurelius who said things that have never happened are happening all the time. Once it happens, it’ll happen again. History does repeat itself and yet this idea of leading through chaos and the unexpected is more relevant than ever with blow after blow and the flow of information which is non-stop. So your advice is learn how to manage through chaos. Did I get that right? Yes, definitely. And what I would add is that it is about a different context and getting the ideas to the table and working together. You mentioned a moment ago that leaders used to have all the answers. That’s why we made you the leader. Today it’s different. The leader doesn’t have all the answers because nobody knows what’s happening. But the leader directs and nudges and incents and inspires people to work with them to find those answers. I like that way of thinking about the future. And Adrian, I would love to build on that a bit because what you see is our default reaction is to try to control and execute and do the things that we have done before. There is a time and space for that as well in the mix but we need to recognize when is it about execution and focus and doing what we have done before versus when do we need to step back and take a pause and create that space. It is that constant agility between those two worlds that is very hard to do but essential. Wonderful. This has been a really insightful deep conversation.
Jackie, we’re thrilled that you came on today. We’re always interested in the self-care tactics of successful people like you who work with not only McKinsey but multiple universities etc. Walk us through a few practices that you’ve found to help you thrive mentally especially in this time of constant chaos. Well, there are many. I’ll give you a few and I also want to emphasize that I’m not always perfect in doing this myself. Self-acceptance is one of them for sure and self-compassion actually is what I meant. I love the basics: take care of your sleep, your nutrition and take breaks during the day. Everybody knows about it but it’s hard to do sometimes. Be intentional about that. But then breathing is an essential part of practices that I apply. Beyond box breathing or the well-known physiological sigh as Andrew Huberman, a professor from Stanford, talks a lot about it. But then I have other practices. There’s a specific pose that is really helpful for me from yoga which is called the camel pose. It opens the heart which was very hard for me to do when I just started it. I always would become dizzy. But since I started practicing it, it really made a huge difference. It created the space and openness. Now, there’s not one thing that works for everyone because it’s very personal and individual but a couple of general rules: breathing, sleep, nutrition and cardiovascular activity. And then of course the reframing activity. So there is a lot possible and I would say if you want to know all about it, read books of course. Excellent. Good for you. A little bit of marketing there at the end.
If there’s one or two things you want people to remember from the conversation, what would that one or two things be?
Great question. I would say this is a lifestyle, not a quick fix. If you want to learn the skills that we spoke about and the second one is you don’t need to suffer. There are techniques which are related to this. And then be intentional. So it’s all connected: be intentional, you don’t need to suffer, you can learn skills and it is about a lifestyle, not a quick fix. Well, thank you very much. Our guest has been Jacqueline Brassy. She’s the author of Authentic Confidence. And as I calm myself down, it was deliberate comment. Thanks so much. It’s not your default brain yet so you need to practice. I need more reps. I need more reps. Listen, thanks so much for being a guest on our podcast. I’m sure a lot of people are going to benefit from it. Take care and keep up with the breathing and the eating and doing the good work that you’re doing. We appreciate it. Thank you so much. It has been really fun.
So every time I say that was the best interview ever and then we have another best interview ever. She’s delightful and had a lot of things to share but I’m curious what your takeaways were and if they match up with mine. I’ll let you go first. Well, you know, I think she’s a very esteemed guest coming from McKinsey worrying about their people and organizational performance. She’s working with a lot of big companies and she’s saying look, organizations have got to start helping people feel safe. Would we have had that conversation three or four years ago? No. That’s a new way of thinking about things and I think that’s healthy and exciting to see. That emphasis and we’ve seen that in a lot of different areas. Work-life balance has become a focus and then flexibility in the workplace but making it safe really contextualized it for me as well. And the adaptability paradox for me was kind of interesting. She said you’ve got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. How many times have I heard you say you’re never going to get comfortable with me? It’s in the word: to be uncomfortable. And then when she went to the elite athletes, that was really interesting for me because it’s not just about reps, that’s the key that you know what to do. It’s managing your emotions, it’s managing that stress so that you can get in the flow and be in that calm state where in those high pressure moments you can perform.
I love that. Well, I remember a basketball player who said he always played against this one guy who would do awful things to him when the refs weren’t looking. He would grab him in crazy places and he would get into his mind. He hated playing against this guy. And what she’s saying is those things happen. They’re gonna happen all the time. We’re gonna be in chaos and it’s not gonna stop. So it’s that muscle memory of you can’t let it get into your mind. You have to be comfortable at the steering wheel, be a little vulnerable yourself but really change your mindset to say I’m in control no matter what’s happening. I’m still gonna take my shots, I’m still going to do those things I need to do. I’m in control, not my emotions. That was my takeaway. I love that Dutch saying by the way: the soup is never eaten as hot as it’s served. I’m gonna meditate on that one. I think I’ll need to.
Yeah, to me the takeaway was when you first get this punch in the face that things are going crazy, very quickly you’re served the hot soup but it very quickly gets edible and it’s never eaten as hot as it’s served. It’s interesting to me that again her personal practices and we see this again and again: make sure you take care of yourself and find what works for you. For her it was yoga and how often we heard make sure you get out and walk around, make sure you’re eating and you’re getting your sleep. How many times have we made bad decisions because we’re just exhausted? So that message comes out time and time again and I don’t think we can emphasize it too much.
Make sure you’re doing the basics. You know there are days you wake up and you don’t feel great. What are the things that you do to get yourself in that flow, in that good state of mind? And often it’s those rituals: exercising, eating well. And as a leader, put on your own oxygen mask first which we’ve said many times. But take care of yourself. But then she also talked about what leaders are supposed to be doing now. Well, role model yourself, understand your team members. We’ve talked about this: get to know their stories. You are now, instead of the top task giver, you as a manager are the top relationship builder. And that’s a different way of thinking about our roles as leaders. So instead of trying to control everything, the new role of a leader is: look, I don’t have all the answers but together we’re going to find them. My job is to help guide us there. The last thing for me is she said it’s a lifestyle, not a quick fix. It’s going to take time. You don’t need to suffer which I thought was a great message. You can do this and be intentional. Identify what the areas are, be intentional about the fixes and make it a part of your lifestyle. I thought it was wonderful. Wonderful. Well, we want to thank Jackie for being on the show with us today. We want to thank Brent Klein who produces our shows, Christy Lawrence who helps us find such amazing guests and all of you who listened in.
And if you like the podcast, please share it, download it. We’d love to have you visit our website thecultureworks.com for some free resources to help you and your team build a culture that will thrive. And then of course we love speaking whether it’s virtual or in person. If you want a great and engaging session with either of us or both of us together, we speak on culture, leadership, anxiety and of course gratitude in the workplace. So Chester, welcome to your birthday party, your Bar Mitzvah, bachelor party, whatever you want him to come to, he’ll be there. Yeah, I think Hallmark actually says your 40th anniversary is Chester Elton keynote. Well, listen, this has been a delight. We love our time with you and of course we’re very grateful for our Anxiety at Work podcast followers and the community we’re building. Thanks so much for your time.
Received message. I can try to fix this text by removing filler and repeated words. Here is the result: Bar mitzvah, bachelor party, whatever you want him to come to, he’ll be there. Yeah, I think Hallmark actually says your 40th anniversary is Chester Elton keynote. Well, listen, this has been a delight. We love our time with you and of course we’re very grateful for our Anxiety at Work podcast followers and the community we’re building. Thanks so much for your time.