How to Keep Calm and Set the Tone for Your Work Culture

As a hostage negotiator, George Kohlrieser has been held hostage four times. Even when a pair of scissors was against his throat, he chose to talk rather than call for force against his captor. In those tense moments, he chose his words carefully in order to build a connection from the hostage taker’s despair to hope.

Hopefully you have never been held physically hostage, but most likely you have been in work situations when you have felt emotionally held hostage by an employee, client, or business stakeholder. Maybe it was a conversation that quickly became heated or you were falsely accused of something you didn’t do. Your ability to stay calm and remain in control of your emotions will determine the outcome of a tense situation and the tone of your work culture.

Lesson from Hostage Negotiators

Hostage negotiators are trained to create a connection with captors. First, negotiators stay in control of themselves. They monitor their voices and nonverbal cues to create calmness to help de-escalate the tense situation. As they stay in control of their reactions, the hostage taker is more likely to de-escalate and the situation can be negotiated.

Applying Hostage Negotiation Skills to your Work Culture  

One of the best ways to build a high-performing work culture is to be a leader that models self-control. Stay calm, think before you speak, and keep your reactions in check when under pressure. In doing so, you juggle several things at once. Listen to the other person, consider his/her point of view, and feel your own feelings, but don’t act on them. Even when those around you are anxious, agitated, and angry, your self-control serves as a secure base that opens the lines of dialogue and resolution.

At the core of conflict is fear. When you can see beyond someone’s escalated voice, negative tone, or constricted face, you see someone who is hurting. This point of view helps you stay in control and diffuse the tense situation.

Leaders can learn a lot from hostage negotiators on how to set the tone for the work culture. While I hope you are never in a life-threatening hostage situation, I do hope you’ll practice this fundamental behavior of self-control. If you’d like to talk more about how to stay calm under pressure and impact your work culture, let’s talk. We can help.

In Part 2 of Setting the Tone in your Work Culture Series, I will be explaining how to create a connection with employees who are difficult to like.

Bonnie Artman Fox is a Work Culture Speaker and Coach. She works with senior leaders to strengthen organizational health through work cultures that optimize performance, productivity, and results. She brings over 25 years of expertise as a psychiatric nurse and marriage & family therapist to help organizations build work cultures where people function at their best. To learn more or bring Bonnie to your company, visit