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It may be time to replace the burning oil platform with deliberate calm … and a skylight.

It has been popular to push change by offering a dire metaphor of how otherwise the organization risks becoming a burning oil platform everyone will need to leap from in order to save their lives. But a trio of McKinsey consultants argue instilling fear drains energy and leads people to double down on their ineffective existing behaviours rather than embrace new ways.

Instead, in moments of change we must seek a new, adaptive approach in which we break free of established patterns and open our minds to learning and growth. That requires cultivating deliberate calm, with the flexibility, learning agility, awareness and emotional self-regulation to move us and our team ahead. “Practising deliberate calm is more important than ever. Our world is changing rapidly, forcing us to deal with unprecedented levels of uncertainty and volatility, both individually and collectively,” Jacqueline Brassey, Aaron De Smet and Michiel Kruyt write in Deliberate Calm.

That doesn’t just apply to the big sweeping change initiatives than transfix organizations, but also the constant swirl of proposed improvements, even modest ones, we grapple with regularly. Instead of seeking safety and familiarity – defending against the latest apparent nonsense from our boss or colleagues or customers – we need to relax and open our minds to novel approaches.

How often do you feel yourself tense up each week when progress requires you to adapt, expand your thinking and open your mind to new possibilities? One simple tool they recommend is the skylight, a practical way to adopt the advice of Harvard University professors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky that leaders must simultaneously be able to operate on the balcony and the dance floor, reflecting on themselves while in action.

Start by picturing a skylight in your ceiling, seeing the blue sky and light streaming in. Imagine yourself peering through that skylight at yourself, in your environment. Contemplate the temperature and sounds in the room, the fabric of your clothes, and at least one emotion you are feeling. Can you observe your thoughts – the ones you would not openly share with the others in the room?

The consulting trio calls this “dual awareness,” observing yourself in your environment, digging deep into your instincts and feelings. Practising it regularly will allow you to find a place of deliberate calm in moments of stress, less likely to erupt emotionally.

Too often, they note, we seek a state of protection during uncertainty, defending ourselves or our team. “We hunker down, contract and become primarily concerned with protecting our identities, opinions, stories and inner logic. We defend and cling tightly to them instead of considering an alternative perspective or the possibility of trying or learning something new,” they warn. And it’s not just you likely to slide into this negative state. So will members of your team, making it even more important that you find dual awareness and a sense of deliberate calm.

The consultants delineate five levels of awareness you will proceed through on the road to deliberate calm:

  • Unaware: Here we are not aware of our internal state – the emotions and patterns of behaviours buried like an iceberg within us – and are operating on autopilot. We are also not aware of the impact of our behaviour on others. But we assume we are acting rationally and logically.
  • Delayed: As you become sensitive to the notion of dual awareness and become more reflective, you are still unlikely to alter your behavioural style in real time. Instead, you might become aware after the fact that you acted ineffectively from a state of protection. You must continue to probe the unknown or undiscovered aspects of your psyche, sharing with others so they can collaborate better with you.
  • Perceptive: Now you might start to notice your patterns of behaviour as they are occurring, noting triggers that set you in the wrong direction and picking up on warning signals like a jaw tensing or negative thoughts toward colleagues sending you in a downward spiral. You will probably reduce your negative responses to the situation somewhat, but still need more time to reflect on your mindset and behaviours.
  • Resilient: Now you are starting to get it and are able to react appropriately – after a short pause or time out. When you get emotional, you might suggest the team take a bathroom break, allowing you to splash some water on your face, take some deep breaths (the consultants stress exhaling longer than inhaling), reflect on the situation, and coach yourself on how to proceed. “As leaders, we often want to move forward and get to solutions as quickly as possible, but during times of stress it is essential to pause in order to move faster,” the consultants write.

In time, you can move to the fifth awareness level, where you are able to pivot from defensiveness to learning in the moment, a practitioner of deliberate calm. It will make you more effective in dealing with change.


  • Observing but not commenting directly on the layoffs and staff resignations at Twitter, Jason Fried, chief executive officer at 37signals, developer of Basecamp software, notes that corporate size can vary dramatically. With 80 employees, his company is between a quarter and a half the size of direct competitors with a similar number of customers, and his staff still works reasonable hours. “Building complex, large organizations is a choice, not a requirement,” he argues.
  • Instead of making this the season of annual performance reviews, software manager Jacob Kaplan-Moss recommends spreading it through the year on the anniversary of someone’s hiring or most recent promotion, reducing the burden at one time and allowing you to work on the skills you develop doing them more continually.
  • When asked for advice, executive coach Lara Hogan suggests turning it into a brainstorming session by asking questions before giving advice. Enter coaching mode.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.