When Our Brains Work Against Us

I learned a new term yesterday – amygdala hijacking.  This is a term created by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1996). Essentially, the amygdala is the oldest part of our brain and is part of the control mechanism for flight or fight response.   According to Goldman, if the amygdala receives input that a person is in a critical situation, it can ‘hijack’ and override rational responses.  Unfounded and potentially damaging reactions may be the result of the purely emotional response.

                When I learned about this term, I immediately saw the potential impact on people and leaders. There are many times when I’ve reacted to a situation in a manner that was totally out of character for me and had to deal with the consequences.  The key word in that last statement is “reacted”.  That is what the amygdala hijacking is doing to us – making us react.  According to Goldman, not all of the emotional responses are negative; some may be incredibly positive, where we fall down laughing so hard we can’t breathe.  I’m going to focus more on the negative side, though, because that is the part we, as leaders, must learn to control for ourselves and our teams.

                Referencing flight or fight responses, the first thoughts conjure visions of dangerous situations where lives are on the line.  I submit flight or fight responses do not have to be the result of something so drastic or dramatic to be just as scary or intense for people.  Think about speaking in front of a large group of people. Toastmasters International was founded on the idea that public speaking is a paralyzing fear for a majority of people.  What about having an uncomfortable conversation regarding behavior or performance with a peer or subordinate or having to terminate someone? What about a tough conversation with a spouse?  These are not situations that are pleasant or happy for most people.  In some ways, we prepare ourselves for the fight or flight in anticipation of the other person’s reaction to the news. 

                Unfortunately, I think this anticipation is part of the problem.  In some ways I know I subconsciously steel myself against potential attack, which may make me less open or receptive to the other person’s thoughts and feelings.  It is not an easy thing, but it is possible to control that flight or fight response.  I think as leaders it is critical for us consciously to make an effort to control our emotional responses.  That is part of being the calm, cool and collected pillar of strength that is expected of us.  Again, though, I temper this suggestion by realizing that we are human and not made of stone.  It is a positive reminder to our teams when we do show some emotion because it demonstrates that we care – there is a personal connection – to the team.  The bottom line is we have to be aware that sometimes our own bodies (i.e. brains) are working against us!

Lori Buresh

CEO, The Professional Development Team


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  1. Does Emotion Affect Leadership? « The Professional Development Team

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