How to Keep Calm and Carry On at Work

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We’ve all seen the T-shirt "Keep Calm and Carry On." The phrase, created for a World War II-era British public safety poster, has been described as “quintessentially British” and has taken on a life of its own as a popular meme. Perhaps its popularity stems from a need for calm in the midst of constant change and information overload or maybe it just makes people think of Monty Python.

Keep calm and carry on. Original poster from Barter Books, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Either way, it certainly serves as an appropriate slogan for anyone dealing with drama and confrontation in the workplace. Most of the crises we deal with at work are not life threatening, but they can certainly wreak havoc with our state of mind if we don’t learn how to face them with equanimity. Here are six strategies to help you keep calm and carry on at work.

Breathe Before Reacting

Teachers and parents know that diffusing anger may be as simple as making a child count to ten before reacting. Somewhere in our journey to adulthood, most of us forget that simple lesson. The mind and body work together to escalate tension when things go wrong. You feel angry or upset and your heart starts to pound—your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. These physical symptoms reinforce the mental stress, which further accelerates your physical reaction—creating an anxiety spiral. Counting to ten can break the cycle. So can stopping to breathe. Just as rapid, shallow breathing accelerates tension, slow, deep breathing can reduce it. When a crisis breaks in the office, or you’re dealing with a stressful situation, focus on breathing slowly and more deeply to allow anger and tension to drain away.

Aim for Rational Detachment

In a confrontational situation, people are more likely to respond defensively, which typically escalates things. Creating mental distance between yourself and the situation allows you to be part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem. This mental distance is called rational detachment and it is the ability to stay in control of one’s own behavior when someone else is acting-out or being aggressive. It involves recognizing that the behavior is not about you; maintaining professionalism even when under attack, and not escalating the situation with your own reactions. [1]

Don’t Take it Personally

It’s impossible to achieve rational detachment if we take every crisis and confrontation to heart. Of course, not taking these things personally is easier said than done, especially if we’re wired that way. The best we can do is become better at shifting from personal pain to rational detachment as quickly as possible. In other words, during those few seconds of counting and breathing, beneath the surface we will take it personally; but then we must get past the pain and create the emotional distance we need to move forward.

Release Physical Tension

When you find yourself embroiled in a stressful situation at work, a quick burst of physical activity can serve as both a distraction and a pressure valve. If possible, take a walk, climb some stairs, or go to the gym and punch a bag (not a co-worker!). Finding a way to release some of the physical tension associated with confrontation and anxiety will make you feel better, while helping you get some distance from the emotional effects of a crisis.

Visualize Success

One of the best ways to prepare for difficult situations is to imagine yourself in those situations and visualize how you would handle them successfully. Mentally walk through your calm and thoughtful responses to potential problems. Imagine yourself listening and responding with empathy to a distraught employee. See yourself as the person who “can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”[2]   This is especially important if you are in a leadership or management role since your ability to remain calm under stress will help your team do the same.

When Someone Pushes Your Buttons – Study the Buttons

A colleague and friend of mine (known for his ability to remain calm under pressure), shares this secret: whenever he has an extreme reaction to a person, suggestion or behavior, he steps back and dissects it to try and figure out why his reaction is so extreme. In other words, he immediately considers his own preconceptions and “hangups” to see whether his response is reasonable or triggered by some completely unrelated personal bias or experience. As an added bonus, by turning the microscope on his own reaction, he immediately becomes more detached and less agitated.

When it comes right down to it, we can’t control the behavior of others; we can only control our own actions in response to that behavior. A big part of that is self-perception. Similarly, we can’t control much of what happens in the world around us, but we can learn to control how we react when things go wrong. By employing the strategies described above, we can learn how to keep calm and carry on in the face of workplace drama, confrontation and crisis.


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[1] Prevention & Management of Disruptive Behavior (PMDB) FY 2008 – Denver Medical Center & NHCU

[2] Opening lines from the poem If by Rudyard Kipling.

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