Emotional outbursts can be very damaging to our lives and careers.

Throwing our toys out of the pram takes place in an instant but its impact can last a lifetime. This post highlights some useful insights from psychology and neuroscience that can help us to manage our defences. Learning to handle our reactivity makes a real difference to our leadership, relationships and conversations.

The first time that someone really pressed my buttons at work happened many years ago.

It was hardly a career-limiting moment of Jeremy Clarkson proportions but instructive nonetheless.

I was nineteen years old and halfway through an industrial placement year. I’d chosen to do a 4-year degree at the University of Nottingham with its 5-star rated psychology department as we had the option to spend a year in industry. I’ve always been more of a practitioner than an academic and I was keen to see how psychology could make a difference in the real world.

To my great delight, I was fortunate to get a placement at a global consulting firm specialising in the production of psychometric tests. They sat me in an office with their graduate intakes, put me on the same training programme and gave me similar opportunities to do supervised consulting work. I loved working directly with clients as I wanted to apply what I’d learnt in the lab to organisational settings.

During one of our training courses, one of the graduate trainees and I were talking with a client over coffee. We were all delegates learning about how to use personality questionnaires for recruitment. During our conversation it came to light that I would soon be leaving the company and the client asked why I was going.

“Well, I’m the sandwich student,” I said.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

Before I could respond, my colleague butted in and said:

“It means Sarah does the same work as us graduates but gets paid half as much!”

While this was true, it was also a deliberate put-down. The impact of her “hit” to my self-esteem stays with me still, over two decades later. How do we make sense of such high-energy moments? What is the best way to deal with them, particularly if we feel like snapping back or even reaching across and punching the other person?

These are questions that matter to all of us, whether we’re a corporate leader, a graduate trainee or a TV presenter with a household name. Our careers stand or fall to the degree that we are able to deal with getting triggered.

Awareness is curative

Recent research from neuroscience shows how specific threats in a social situation affect our ability to interact productively. Raising our awareness about what makes us want to attack or avoid another person helps our interactions to be more productive. As Tim Gallwey says in his 1974 classic The Inner Game of Tennis, “Awareness is curative.”

Threats in our social world, such as feeling that someone is dissing us, stimulate brain networks similar to threats to our primary survival needs (such as for food and water). Once our limbic system (which houses our emotional reactions) is activated, it seeks to minimise the threat by avoiding a person or situation, or by attacking back. All this happens unconsciously, automatically and very quickly – in less than a 1/5th of a second!

Our over-vigilant amygdala in our limbic system is easily triggered as it is more tuned to threats than rewards. Once our reactivity kicks in, our cognitive performance decreases as we have fewer resources available – less oxygen and less glucose – in our prefrontal cortex. When our thinking brain goes offline, the results can be disastrous, as Jeremy Clarkson has discovered.

Social stressors

David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute has found that there are 5 key social threats that act as potential stressors. Using the acronym SCARF, these 5 trigger points concern threats to our:

  • Status – e.g. having our budget or team cut.
  • Competence – e.g. someone says, “Can I give you some feedback?”
  • Autonomy – e.g. feeling micro-managed.
  • Relatedness – e.g. being left out of a meeting.
  • Fairness – e.g. the goalposts being moved.

When we raise our awareness of these threats, we are less at the mercy of our reactivity – and better able to deal with getting triggered.

The first of these flash points is when someone threatens our social status. Our defences come up more readily in a situation, such as a performance review conversation, where we might feel we’re on the backfoot. Recognising these trigger points for what they are – threats to our social standing – helps us to manage how we deal with our “fight or flight” response kicking in.

Returning to the story I shared earlier, I am now better able to make sense of what happened. I experienced my colleague’s barbed comment as a threat to my social status. As soon as she spoke, my heart started racing, my palms began sweating and my jaw became tight. While there was no overt threat to my well-being or safety, my body responded as if were in a dangerous situation.

Six seconds

Re-engaging our “thinking brain” when it has been “hijacked” by our “emotional brain” (amygdala) is a key leadership skill. To avoid having a shouting match or stony silence, Joshua Freedman in his 2007 book At the heart of leadership: How to get results with emotional intelligence shows how creating a “six second pause” is all we need to keep our cool and our conversation on track.

Taking a couple of deep breaths, counting to ten or getting a glass of water generates a “moment of choice”. This enables us to consciously choose what to do or say next.

I didn’t have this awareness when I was 19 years old. Whilst I managed not to make a shoot-from-the-hip response, I did find myself recoiling from my colleague. I stuffed my feelings of anger and resentment and decided to say nothing. In the months that followed, our relationship became increasingly strained. The tense atmosphere between us was not productive to collaboration and I missed out on learning from her experience. Avoiding people by withdrawing can cost us as much as a having a fracas.

Getting over an “emotional hijack” does not have to leave our career or a relationship in tatters. When we are conscious enough to create a short pause in a high-stakes moment, we are right on our growth edge. No matter how provocative or perturbing someone else’s comments or behaviours are, we can learn to manage our triggers.

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For further information about David Rock’s SCARF model:


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