Emotional Hijacks at Work: Beware the Tiger

Most of the books I read about the brain and emotional intelligence talk about an emotional or amygdala hijacking, which is what you see when the boss loses it and goes on a rant. It’s not pretty, and almost always makes the hijacker look pretty stupid.

The amygdala is the brain’s radar for threat. It is very handy when hunting for food: it triggers a survival response faster than you can say “hungry tiger.” The problem is that we no longer run into tigers, but instead encounter angry coworkers and bosses on the prowl. But the amygdala makes no difference between a threat to our survival and a threat to our ego.

Same response: fight or flight. And for many of us, we don’t think it’s manly to turn and flee, so we engage in verbal jujitsu akin to World Heavy Weight Wrestling. But when in the grips of a hijack, the amygdala makes mistakes. It only receives a fraction of the data available.

And in today’s workplaces, most of our dangers are symbolic, not physical threats. So we react in ways we often regret later.

Here are the five top amygdala triggers in the workplace, from Tony Schwartz’ book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working:

  1. Condescension and lack of respect
  2. Being treated unfairly
  3. Being Unappreciated
  4. Feeling that you’re not being listened to or heard
  5. Being held to unrealistic deadlines

Especially in today’s climate of economic uncertainty, on the tail end of an ugly recession, there’s a lot of free-floating fear in the air. It doesn’t take much to trigger fear of family security, which is enough to get anybody seriously upset.

I read somewhere that there is chronic low-grade amygdala hijacks occurring in many businesses on a daily basis.  That can’t be good for your heart, your brain, your health… or your job.

Here’s what we can all do to minimize our hijacks:

  • Pay attention. Notice when you’re in the middle of a hijack.
  • Use deep breathing to gain time and space. This lets more oxygen into your brain and lets your rational brain begin to work.
  • Use a mantra or self-talk, like “I’m okay; this isn’t a real threat. Give me a second to come out of it.”
  • Ask for a few minutes, a time break, as in: “Let me get back to you on this.”

Hijacks can last a few seconds or a few minutes, but the sooner you break its spell, the better you’ll feel. You’ll learn you can keep in control without losing face.

What’s been your experience with being hijacked by your or another person’s amygdala?

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