Mind Over Matter

When Emotions Hijack Your Rational Response

Have you ever experienced a moment when you see something or hear something that rubs you the wrong way? And before you can appropriately respond to it, your emotions take over?

Then just like that, it’s over; the moment is gone. All that’s left is the mental — and potentially social — cleanup. You might need to process shocked responses from those who witnessed the event. Then there’s your own surprised reaction to get through, along with some regret and without a doubt, the dumbfounded question, “What in the world was I thinking?”

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux suggests that we process things emotionally first, long before they ever reach our rational mind. His work ultimately informed well-known author and psychologist Daniel Goleman who would later call these overwhelming experiences “amygdala hijacking.”

Essentially, your emotions take over your brain and any rational response you might make. The brain’s amygdala, which runs our fight, flight or freeze response, jumps into action without giving you a chance to mull things over. Your poor neocortex — home of impulse control — doesn’t stand a chance.

Now, we can’t be too harsh with the amygdala for its quick response. It’s just trying to help us to survive, after all. But in life, particularly professional life, these mental hijackings can spell trouble. For instance, something crazy happens, you run off at the mouth, and then you owe one of your co-workers an apology. Or, your face  shows how stupid you think something is, and boom, you owe another co-worker an apology.

Anyone — from a front-line employee to the CEO — can fall prey to amygdala hijacking. Indiscriminant emotions are a common part of the human experience. But we can minimize the fallout or stop such instances all together.

Researchers are increasingly examining leadership through a neuroscience lens. Therefore, leaders can not only put names to mysterious experiences like those pesky hijackings but also take away their potentially disastrous power. We can govern ourselves so that we wait to make big business decisions —or responses — until after the emotional tide has passed. Trust me, everyone will be better for it.

Leaders have as much as 50 to 70 percent influence over their teams’ climate. Why ruin that with a quick response? Wait a minute, give your neocortex a chance to catch up, and communicate with confidence.


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