Training Managers to Stay Calm: Two Techniques From First Responders and Soldiers

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The ability to stay calm in the face of stress is a good quality to possess, particularly as a manager. In fact, calmer managers are linked to less employee turnover, better employee productivity and collaboration, and higher employee engagement. 

We can learn a lot from first responders—EMTs, police officers, and firefighters—and soldiers about techniques to stay calm under pressure. The research available indicates two strategies you can use to effectively train managers to keep their cool, even in the most stressful situations. 

Practice in a simulation. The old adage “practice makes perfect” is still quite relevant when you want to train employees to keep calm in a chaotic situation. Research has consistently shown that people will perform better during the actual stressful situation if they have encountered a similar situation before. And the more realistic the simulation, the better. For example, thanks to simulations, the U.S. military is now training soldiers how to engage in combat. They use mock scenarios complete with the same sights, sounds, and smells soldiers would encounter in combat. The goal is to get the soldiers used to what they will experience so that there will be fewer surprises and distractions when they have to face a real-life chaotic situation. 


Fortunately, most of us don’t need to prepare for something quite so stressful, but the same principle still applies. You might, for instance, role play with new managers about how to have difficult conversations with their direct reports. This will enable managers to have a frame of reference when they are in similar situations in the future. Further, ATD’s new research report, Experiential Learning for Leaders, found that simulations for both frontline and senior leaders correlated to better market performance. However, ATD found that these low-risk simulations are not widely used for developing leaders. In fact, only 14 percent of those who use experiential learning for developing leaders in their organizations use simulations to do so. 

Meditate. Practicing meditation regularly is another technique that can help people feel less stressed when they are under pressure. For example, meditating twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes allows people to become alert and focused during a stressful task that requires all their attention. They become accustomed to blocking out other distracting thoughts that are not pertinent to the task at hand. 

Although much of the research is centered on first responders and soldiers, the same idea can be applied to managers in your own organization. By encouraging managers to incorporate meditation into their daily routine, they will increase their ability to stay calm, focused, and productive when the situation calls for it, such as when a direct report quits the day before an important client meeting. Although these tools are used within the military and with first responders, they still have relevance in the business world. Keeping calm in chaotic or stressful situations is important for all managers, whether they are on the front line of the battlefield or the front line of your organization. Utilizing these tools will help your managers remain calm and focused in the heat of the moment, ensuring that their teams and the business perform at a high level. 

The Experiential Learning for Leaders report will be available to purchase in mid-May.

About the Author
Megan Cole is a research analyst at the Association for Talent Development (ATD). Her primary responsibilities include creating and programming surveys, cleaning and analyzing data, and writing research reports for publication. Prior to working at ATD, she worked as a market research analyst for a marketing company that specialized in association marketing. 

Megan received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Central Florida. She earned a doctorate in communication from Arizona State University. 

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