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How to Manage Adversity Like a Boss

March 10, 2020 in

Author |  Jeremy Atkins and Shrujal Joshi, Performance Coaches

Consider three scenarios: A basketball player who thinks the official made an incorrect call; a business professional whose computer crashed in the middle of a key meeting; a TSA officer dealing with an irate passenger. What do these three individuals have in common? They’re all dealing with some type of undesirable, external force they often have little control over. The basketball player, business professional, and TSA officer all have a choice to make when faced with these scenarios: let it affect their performance or don’t. The wise choice here is always the latter. Performance psychology calls the wise choice “controlling the controllables.”1

At HigherEchelon Inc., a leadership consulting firm, we believe that leadership is a performance.  The influence leaders bring everyday to their teams hinges, in part, on their ability to “control the controllables.”

Controllables essentially refer to anything internal that we can harness to help produce a desired outcome, such as our energy, our thoughts, or our attentional resources.1 On the flip side, an uncontrollable is something we have no influence over.2 These can be seemingly infinite, ranging anywhere from poor weather to a traffic jam that could make you late to the office. When faced with adversity, focusing on the controllables is the key to becoming a high performing leader. In order to remain resilient and adaptable, you should make a cognizant effort to focus only on the things that are in your control.

Step 1: Control Your Breath

If we are noticing our energy levels are not matching our task demands, we can take steps to get back on track.2 Deliberate breathing practices can have a huge impact on performance due to their natural self-regulation abilities. Breath control techniques include physical, mental, and emotional components, which together produce an immediate and fundamental change in physiology. It is a simple yet powerful tool to use in order to self-regulate and control our energy systems.

Take the earlier example of the TSA agent dealing with an irate passenger. During potential high stress situations, controlling their breathing in order to make clear, accurate and quick decisions can have huge impacts. In fact, TSA realized the mental component facing their Officer’s performance and is now working with our team of performance psychologists to teach these practices to them. You can harness this same effect by deliberately thinking about your breath patterns and controlling your cadence with timed inhales and exhales.

Step 2: Control Your Thoughts

The way we think has a significant influence over how we perform. Engaging in effective thought patterns can increase confidence and aid in building consistent, optimal performances.2 If you struggle in pressure situations, do not wait to address your struggles. Travis Bradberry, a renowned author in the field of emotional intelligence, argued “mistakes and pressure are inevitable; the secret to getting past them is to stay calm.”3 Indeed, he is right on many accounts. Staying calm under pressure seems like a daunting task, although it can be easier if you can leverage your thoughts and body to your advantage.

One way is to pre-plan thoughts for any circumstance to achieve a better result.3 If I know the stressful task and I know how I think effectively, I can use my thoughts prior to the performance to set the stage for how I choose to handle that stressful situation.3 Case in point, if a business leader is struggling with sensory overload when dealing with a disgruntled customer, they can plan to use effective self-talk interventions to aid in their performance. Additionally, choose how you want to view that unnerving situation. Having the appropriate mindset is essential to understanding how to perform in nerve-wracking conditions. Instead of viewing it as a threat, change your viewpoint to an opportunity for growth.1 There is a huge difference between a threat and an opportunity. An opportunity bestows upon any individual a chance to be better and a threat makes the situation far more intimidating than it needs to be.1

Step 3: Control Your Attention

In terms of attention resources, we could potentially be wasting critical, finite resources by not focusing on the task at hand.2 Task-focused individuals remain present-minded and concentrated on what is important now. The basketball player can focus on the next play, the business professional can focus on what to say next, and the TSA officer shift their attention to the next bag or passenger. Better performance is fostered by focusing on actionable items at the right time—a skill we call WIN (What’s Important Now).4 This strategy is successful because our brains are hardwired to focus on one thing at a time and it responds well to specific targets.4 To harness this skill, pause, breathe and ask yourself, what action can you take at that exact moment?4 All that matters is that you minimize the mental activity by focusing on the right thing, at the right time, for the right amount of time.2

In order to maintain resiliency, take matters into your own hands instead of leaving it up to chance, and be adaptable to any situation. In the business realm, there are many different types of ambiguous, pressure-packed situations that may seem overwhelming and outside of your control. Making decisions under stress is no easy task, but by mentally preparing yourself and planning to handle stressful conditions, you can set yourself up for success.

Potential uncontrollables are infinite in number, our cognitive resources are very much finite. Investing those finite resources into things we can control, such as our own thoughts and actions, give us the best opportunity to succeed no matter the situation.

Still need help?

HigherEchelon’s Resilient Adaptable Leader ProgramTM will train you and your team in the high performance skills needed to perform at your best.  Additionally, our Executive Coaching series will help ensure these new skills are honed into permanent, automatic behaviors that ensure you reach the highest level of leadership capacity.  Reach out today for a free one on one consultation with one of our performance experts.


1Olusoga, P., et al. (2012). “Coaching under Pressure: A Study of Olympic Coaches.” Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 30, no. 3, 2012, pp. 229–239., doi:10.1080/02640414.2011.639384.

2Fletcher, D. (2011). Applying Sport Psychology in Business: A Narrative Commentary and Bibliography. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 1(3), 139-149. doi:10.1080/21520704.2010.546496

3Bradberry, T., and Greaves, J.(2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0. TalentSmart.

4Nideffer, Robert M. “Test of Attentional and Interpersonal Style.” PsycTESTS Dataset, 1976, doi:10.1037/t27563-000.