Why is it so easy to get tripped up by our own emotions? Someone makes a comment in a meeting and you find yourself flooded with emotion. Your heart starts pounding, your knees are shaking. You open an e-mail from a key leader who is criticizing your position, and you can’t read past the first sentence. What is going on?
I’ve been reading a book by brain scientist Joseph Ledoux called The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (Simon and Schuster, 1996). It’s over a decade old now, and I want to move on to his more recent book The Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. He talks in detail about the amygdala, a part of the brain which seems to be particularly active in the fear response, and in the memory of emotions. I was struck by these words, “It is well known that the connections from the cortical areas to the amygdala are far weaker than the connections from the amygdala to the cortex. This may explain why it is so easy for emotional information to invade our conscious thoughts, but so hard for us to gain conscious control over our emotions.”(p. 265)
Leaders can spend a lifetime working on gaining conscious control over their emotions. Nothing is more difficult, but nothing is more important. None of us will ever get there entirely. The goal is not to be a rational robot but to manage our own reactivity to people and situations. When we react anxiously rather than taking a bit of time to reflect, we can sabotage our own leadership goals. We all have vulnerabilities in this area, arising from our family of origin and our life experience.
The best way to work on this task is to get more thoughtful about our family story, where we learned many of our automatic responses. That takes time, hard work, and some coaching. Of course, we’ll always have moments of reactivity. But when we work on responding more thoughtfully, over time we’ll be able to get back on track more quickly.