Amygdala Hijack: Empowering Your Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence: “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”

Managing your breaking point…

When you see someone snap, it may be the result of an amygdala hijack. It can happen in an instant, or following a slow build – the amygdala kicks in, overpowering the prefrontal cortex (our rational thinking brain) and emotion takes control. It’s our inbuilt security system awakening at the perception of danger. People sense this as a surge of emotion, a need to take action without considered thought.

Most people will have experienced this, seeing their boss lose their temper, road rage – a fit of anger against a perceived injustice or being left speechless during a meeting in the face of an unacceptable behaviour. Amygdala hijacks are often regretted, however this awareness only occurs once prefrontal cortex has resumed control and the damage has been done. Trust is broken; reputations and relationships are damaged, often leaving the person suffering the hijack trying to justify inexplicable behaviour – ouch!

Tony Schwartz identified the top five work triggers for the amygdala hijack as:

  • Condescension
  • Being treated unfairly
  • Being unappreciated
  • Feeling that you’re not being listened to or heard
  • Being held to unrealistic deadlines

The science of an obsolete function…

The amygdala was once our survival tool, getting us out of danger when facing predators. It’s now much redundant and often inconvenient in the modern world. It does not recognise the difference between a threat to our survival or a threat to our ego, its responses are firmly set to flight, fight or freeze – when it’s in the pilot seat outcomes can be regrettable – think of Mike Tyson and the ear bite that cost him $3 million.

Hijacks are signified by a strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, followed by regret. The impact of outbursts can damage careers, reputations and erode respect. They occur as the information our senses send to our brains is hijacked by amygdala before the prefrontal cortex can take control. In a hijack neuroscience shows a flood of oxygen to the amygdala at the expense of the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala is in control…

Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman coined the concept of the amygdala hijack as part of theory on Emotional Intelligence/Quotient (EI/EQ). He defined EQ as ‘the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.’

Watch Daniel Goleman explain his theories of emotional intelligence 

In my post “Letting Good Emotions Roll” I gave an overview of how performance is determined by our emotional intelligence. Hay Group identifies EQ as twice as important as IQ in determining future career success. EQ demonstrates an intrinsic link between individual and company performance, and the EQ of its leaders. Emotions are contagious! In leadership teams, hijacks can jeopardies decisions, collaboration and teamwork. The potential of negative impact and lasting damage is considerable.

Leaders can mitigate hijacks using their EQ – self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and social skills. Self-regulation requires understanding and acknowledging your feelings. This strengthens your ability to regulate and control brain function, empowering the rational part of the brain. ‘Affect Labeling’ our responses can help to identify and understand our triggers and take effective action.

Highly successful leaders recognise and identify with the emotional landscape, defusing and managing situations. Employing effective tools positively to de-escalate an issue, using humour and empathy rather than a negative contagion of anger. Goleman observed that the best leaders get people to laugh three times more often. His research showed EQ as a key differentiator for leadership success, becoming increasingly important the more senior people become.

EQ has a considerable impact on performance and on how people perceive you. There are some tactics to help maintain control during challenging times:

  1. Understand your trigger points and know when you are reaching your threshold
  2. Plan ahead, recognise risk factors and potential derailers, plan accordingly
  3. Wait at least six seconds before responding; breath deeply
  4. Acknowledge your feelings and create choices
  5. Take a considered choice, enable your prefrontal cortex to operate
  6. Check and modify your behaviour accordingly
  7. Acknowledge when you have been hijacked, identify and label the trigger for the future

Simon Senek, in his powerful TED talk; Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe; clearly states that trust and cooperation are core requirements for successful leadership, key for creating high performing and engaged teams.   Without self-control, self-regulation and an understanding of people leaders will not be trusted. A leader sets the tone of an organisation, doing so requires EQ, a coaching and supportive approach, authenticity, clear vision and the ability to work in partnership. Leaders are often promoted based on their technical ability and require support to develop effective leadership skills.

Tailored leadership coaching and development programmes support leaders to develop the skills they need to differentiate themselves from the pack.

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