Keeping Emotional Balance at Work

Best-selling author and psychologist Daniel Goleman explains how executives can control their emotions.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best-seller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

The chief executive of a global real estate firm was usually affable—except when one of his direct reports brought him bad news. Then he’d become enraged and yell, threatening the person. While no one told him to his face, everyone who worked for him agreed: he was a nightmare boss.

That CEO was deficient in a leadership competence I call “emotional balance” or “emotional self-control.” At its best, this quality means an executive keeps his worst impulses and distressing emotions under control. Crucially, such executives can stay calm and effective in the most trying times. Being calm means you can be clearheaded and fully take in what’s going on. This lets you process information deeply and therefore respond most nimbly, even in a crisis.

Emotional balance depends on a neural balancing act between signals from two major brain areas. There’s the prefrontal area, just behind the forehead—the brain’s executive center—where you plan, comprehend, decide, and learn. A major thruway in brain circuitry connects the executive area to the centers for emotion, lower down in the midbrain.

Key among the emotional centers is the amygdala, the brain’s scanner for safety or threat. That CEO saw bad news as a threat—at least symbolically, if not physically. And in modern times it’s the symbolic dangers—a bad quarter, an unexpected move by a competitor—that set off the amygdala. When the amygdala perceives a danger of any kind, it has a privileged position in the brain that lets it take over the prefrontal cortex, telling us how to react. 

During such an amygdala hijack, the executive area stops planning, comprehending, deciding, or learning. It just acts out what the lower brain centers think we must do, and now. The amygdala makes snap judgments, directing us to act in ways from our early days. We react childishly, in a manner that is unskillful, if downright self-defeating.

You know the times your amygdala hijacked your executive center. Those are the moments you had a very strong emotional reaction, and before you could think twice, you did or said something you instantly regretted.

Cognitive neuroscience finds that, when we are confronted with such moments, our ability to process information freezes. The more distressed we are, the less we are able to concentrate on what matters and respond effectively or simply make the best decision.

And this executive paralysis spreads. Among any group, it’s only natural to pay most attention to and put most importance on what the most powerful person says or does. Leaders spread their feelings to those around them, for better or for worse.

Sigal Barsade, a researcher then at the Yale School of Management, demonstrated this forcefully in simulated teams. The leader of those teams was put either in a bad mood or a positive one. Over the course of working together, the members of those teams caught whichever mood the leader was in. If downbeat, performance suffered. If upbeat, the team did well. This was true for business decisions, for creativity, and even for coordinating together on something as simple as putting up a tent. 

Then there’s the matter of what happens if a leader gets hijacked by his or her amygdala and explodes at an employee. Surveys of employees show that they remember such bad moments with a boss quite vividly—far better than the pleasant ones. After that toxic encounter, most employees recalled, they felt their motivation evaporate. Many said they wanted to avoid any and all contact with that leader.

George Kohlrieser at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, has studied more than a thousand executives at the top—C-suite and board members. He finds the very best share one ability: they stay calm and cool in a crisis, managing their own emotions, which creates an aura of safety and calm in those around them. They don’t spread fear, anger, or tension.

There are ways to strengthen your emotional balance. One is to take advantage of the gap between impulse and action. When your amygdala sends that anger or panic signal to the executive center, you have a window to handle it well—or not.

It takes self-awareness, the foundation of emotional balance, to take control. If you don’t see your hijacks coming, they are more likely to lead to a disastrous reaction. But if you can monitor the internal signs of an oncoming hijack—such as angry thoughts or a certain feeling in your gut—then you can go down another route. If, for example, you can tell yourself, “I’m having that feeling again…,” this means you have activated prefrontal circuitry that helps you manage the amygdala. You can make a calmer response.

The more you practice this, the better you will get. And getting your body and mind used to calming down instead of blowing up means you’ll suffer those hijacks less and less.