Emotional Hijack

As Steve stomped down the hall toward the office of the senior vice president (who also happened to be his boss), he was fuming due to a potential change in his responsibilities he had heard about through the grapevine. Once in his boss’s office, he went off on her about how things had changed since she had come on board and how he didn’t like it.

The Hijack

As you might have guessed, Steve was the victim of an emotional hijack. Due in large part to Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence, business professionals have become familiar with the concept of an emotional hijack and the parts of the brain that are associated with it. Essentially, an emotional hijack involves the following elements:

  • A trigger
  • An instantaneous reaction combined with strong feelings
  • Remorse after the fact (most of the time)

A variety of things can be triggers. For example, they could be something someone says, a problematic printer that fails to produce a critical document needed for a meeting, an unending TSA security line at the airport or a rental car agency mishandling your reservation (cue the Steve Martin scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles). The trigger leads to the immediate emotional reaction. Typically, this reaction is an outburst of emotion displayed in a highly unproductive manner. In some cases, the reaction could be withdrawing or shutting down. Regret usually occurs at some point after the immediate reaction once individuals reflect on how they responded, but this is not always the case.

The Impact

Why be concerned about emotional hijacks? The impact they can have on you and others provides the answer to this question. Here are negative effects of hijacks in the work environment:

  • They undermine leadership credibility
  • They derail meetings because valuable time is used for the hijack and for meeting participants to get back on track
  • They can be career limiting

In Steve’s case, he fortunately had a boss who possessed some emotional intelligence and chose not to fire him. Instead, she kept him on the sideline for high-profile initiatives, because she did not feel confident in his executive presence. Incidentally, the change in responsibilities that led to Steve’s hijack was just a rumor.

Hijack Reduction

One of the best ways to reduce hijacks is to learn to recognize your emotional threshold. This is the limit you reach when feelings you are experiencing are about to overwhelm the typical filters or norms of appropriateness. Had Steve been more self-aware, he would have realized that he had passed his emotional threshold and then devised a strategy to effectively address his concerns with his boss. In order to provide a starting point, here are some strategies to help you recognize your emotional threshold and decrease the likelihood of hijacks:

  • Identify your triggers
  • Look for physical warning signs of hijacks associated with your triggers
    • E.g., knots in your stomach, an unconscious clenching of your fist, a flushed complexion
  • Find a way to briefly remove yourself from a trigger situation in order to center yourself
    • E.g., grab some coffee, go to the restroom, take a minute to get something from your office
  • Have a couple methods in mind to refocus your attention and defuse emotion when you can’t physically remove yourself from a trigger situation
    • E.g., think about a hike you enjoy taking on weekends, look at a favorite photo of your kids, do one-minute meditation

As you further consider how to manage hijacks, keep in mind most people will occasionally have an off day that leads to a hijack. When you experience one of these days, don’t beat yourself up. You’re human. See what you can learn from it, and move on. If these off days and hijacks are regular occurrences, then it’s worth taking a closer look.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Anger, Flickr)