The Role of Emotions in Leadership – Part 2, Why We Are So Afraid of Them

The Role Of Emotions In Leadership—part Ii Why We Are So Afraid Of Them

by John Scherer 

In this series of newsletter issues, John explores what role, if any, emotions have in leadership and in leadership development. Here he looks at why we are so afraid of emotions. Next issue addresses what we can do to work with these puzzling and powerful components of life and  work. (Much of the following material draws on the work on amygdala hijacking from Joshua  Freedman.) The Editor.

What’s the big deal? Why are emotions so scary to so many people – especially in the workplace? Leaders are yearning for their people to come to work with things like loyalty, commitment, the ability to generate empathy for internal and external customers, and passion for the job. If these aren’t based on emotion, I don’t know what is. . .  

Let’s look at what emotions actually ARE.  

At the physical level, the world of material reality, as my friend, Mark Yeoell, likes to say,  ‘E-motions are simply energy in motion with a label attached.’ Take the label away – like fear, joy, sadness – and all you have are physiological phenomenon occurring in the body.  

What is interesting is that the same physiological phenomena can get connected to very different emotional labels. Tears, for instance can be a sign of sadness, but they also be a manifestation of great joy or even anger. If you are waiting at the train station and your blood pressure and heart rate are slightly elevated, your breathing is shallow, and your pupils are dilated, what is happening? We need the context to find out which label is appropriate. If you are meeting your beloved, it is excitement. If you are meeting someone in the family and you have just lost a loved one, the emotion would likely be labeled sadness or grief. 

But what makes emotions so troublesome is probably their connection to the brain, the place where the label comes from. As you will see, it’s actually the label that becomes the problem with emotions, not the energy moving in the body. When you get really mad – or really anything – this is what happens in your brain:

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Let’s say you see something that strikes you as significant, say someone is angry with you about something. For now the label is not present. That must be created via a brain-based process and comes a nano-second later. First the sensory data coming in (visual, auditory,  etc) is routed to the thalamus, a tiny, but all-powerful organ at the very center of the brain. The thalamus acts as a kind of ‘air traffic controller’ to steer the neurons in the right direction, directing the neurological impulse to the cortex for processing. As Freedman describes it, the cortex ‘thinks’ quickly about the impulse and decides what it means. ‘Aha, my colleague is mad at me.’ That information signal is then sent to the amygdala, where a  flood of peptides and hormones are released to create emotion and action in the body. 

But, in case of a dire emergency, the thalamus can quickly react to the potential threat and bypasses the cortex – the thinking brain – altogether. In this case, the signal goes straight to the amygdala. Now the fun begins, because the amygdala can’t really think about what is happening; it can only react based on previously stored patterns. As a result of early programming, your amygdala ‘knows’ what threats look like, and it just takes over the whole process when one of those shows up. It becomes what Dan Goleman calls ‘The  Hijacking of the Amygdala.’ My therapist friend, ____, used to say, ‘John, your lizard is  running you now.’ 

Sometimes this kind of reaction can save our lives. More frequently it leads us to say  something harmful, to escalate the situation, or even to violence. 

To minimize the damage from hijacking, it is important to practice patterns which lead to de-escalation. 

From that hijacked state, that condition where your brain is flooded with electro chemicals, you still have options. You do not need to stay hijacked — you still can choose actions. After all, the chemicals do not persist — they will dissipate in three to six seconds. 

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