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When Leaders Blow Up: The Amygdala Hijack

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Most of us have had days when suddenly the boss totally loses their cool and reacts disproportionately and irrationally to something that otherwise would not have bothered them. They have a complete meltdown in the middle of the office and have to be led gently away to cool down for a while.

There is a perfectly rational explanation: their prefrontal cortex (the logical bit of their brain) might be being hijacked by their Amygdala (the bit that governs split-second emotional responses).

Let me explain. The Amygdala is the first port of call for most brain responses. It makes a snap (emotional) judgement on a certain situation and then passes the information on to be logically assessed. If the snap judgement does not involve anything too alarming, then the brain works things out as usual. If, however, the Amygdala (for example) sees something the shape of a snake while walking through the woods, it passes the information on to the logical brain, but at the same time tells our body to pump some adrenaline and gets us ready to run.

Here, the Amygdala is very much in charge of activating our fight or flight mechanism, although fear is not the only emotion that it governs. Any strong emotional response to an external stimulus has its origins in the Amygdala. We feel before we think, and sometimes the “feeling” can be so strong that it can stop us from “thinking straight” entirely.

Something triggers that response and hell hath no fury like an Amygdala in control….

So, when our boss blows up at someone texting on their mobile phone in the meeting and threatens to confiscate everyone’s phones, you know that his Amygdala has taken over for a minute. When they then start to rant about the lack of discipline in the team and the fact that people endlessly waste their time on social media looking at cat photos, you know that they has lost the plot completely.

Amygdala 1 : Boss 0

The way to stop your Amygdala from going on the rampage is to work on your emotional intelligence (or EQ as Daniel Goleman coined the acronym). This involves emotional self-awareness, learning to regulate and control your emotions, feeling empathy for the plights of others, and being socially aware to make the most of your relationships. EQ has been proven time and again to be more important than IQ in the workplace – it is what helps you to make friends and influence people. The leaders who “blow up” all the time probably don’t have the highest levels of EQ. They let their Amygdala run riot. Those leaders who are emotionally aware are able to understand when their Amygdala is about to hijack them, and they can quickly bring it under control.

Your first reaction isn’t always the right reaction. There is a lot to be said for counting to ten and then giving your (non-emotional) response. Your Amygdala isn’t your enemy – it is what gives you great intuition, but if left unchecked, it can cause you to fight when a simple discussion would suffice. Don’t let it hijack you.

first published 2015

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