Protect yourself and your team from emotional hijack

Kathryn Bice - AAP

4 minute read

The sign of emotional balance is not that you never get upset, but how quickly you recover from feeling emotionally overwhelmed, says Daniel Goleman, a pioneer researcher into emotional intelligence.

This is what's now known as "resilience", and it can be developed through developing the neural circuitry for "cognitive control", which enables you to stay on task, delay gratification, and exercise impulse control.

A related ability is "mindfulness", which can be developed through meditation and mental awareness exercises such as deep breathing. The more you do such exercises, the stronger your self-awareness and mindfulness become.

Another key element of success in relationships, in both private and work life, is rapport. This sense of attunement or harmony among individuals is vital for relationships, and its absence explains why texting and emails may be fine for transactional communications, but are damaging in situations involving emotions.

With a lifetime's experience as a psychologist and psychology researcher, Goleman is fascinated by how his findings apply in the corporate world, and continues to work with organisations to identify the people and the personal characteristics that can contribute to success.

He describes 12 crucial competencies for high performance, which he groups into four aspects.


Self-awareness is closely interlinked with the concept of the "social brain", which emerged from research in Italy that identified "mirror neurons". In a lab, researchers noticed that the brain circuitry of a lab monkey responded to watching a person lick a gelato as if the monkey were having a gelato themselves.

Mirror neurons are active all the time, recognising and transferring emotions between people. While this may be obvious when we observe the interactions between close family members, it also happens among colleagues, bosses and workers, managers and clients.

Understanding the potential of such emotional contagion is important for leaders, who will get the best results from their teams if they emanate positive emotions such as enthusiasm, openness, and optimism.

Our brains automatically recognise smiles and laughter, and research shows that the most effective leaders have three times as many happy moments with their teams as the least effective. They are not cracking jokes, just making the team a good place to be.

One way to boost our willpower and focus is to manage our distractions instead of letting them manage us.


Self-management has four key elements.

  • Emotional self-control: One definition of maturity is "lengthening the gap between impulse and action." Research has shown that the strongest predictor of "success" in life is not a rich family of origin or a high IQ, but this cognitive control. One measure of this control is the "marshmallow test", which gauges the ability of four-year-olds not to eat a single marshmallow and instead to wait and be rewarded with two marshmallows. A longitudinal study at Stanford University established that the four-year-olds who were able to wait for the reward gained higher scores at school and had more success in life and work. 
  • Adaptability: Flexibility in handling change, seizing opportunities. This is another key predictor of success and satisfaction in both their career and life as a whole
  • Achievement orientation: People like measures so they know how they are doing and can seek constant achievement.
  • A positive outlook: This helps you respond appropriately to difficult situations. 


This competency comprises two elements: empathy and organisational awareness.

  • Empathy: This key competency has three major aspects, which operate in three different areas of the brain's neural circuitry. Cognitive empathy is the ability to say, "I understand what you are saying and thinking." Social empathy means, "I know how you're feeling." The third aspect, empathic concern, is the ability to show, "I care about you." This is, in fact, the foundation of the parent's concern for a child, the dynamic that animates attachment between people. Without empathic concern, it is difficult for leaders to exercise the other types of empathy. 
  • Organisational awareness: This is often as simple as knowing who to go to get a decision made.

Emotional intelligence is twice as important for success than IQ and technical skills


The most complex, yet ultimately decisive, competency is relationship management. This comprises five elements. 

  • Influence: How do you persuade someone to give you the decision you're looking for?
  • Conflict resolution: If people are having emotional hijacks together, you need to be able to help cool them out. If you are able to avert the executive function of your prefrontal cortex you can help people calm down their emotions and prevent the amygdala hijacking the brain.
  • Coach and mentor: Highly competitive people can actually interfere with team productiveness, while those including people with high EI are safe places that enable creativity.
  • Teamwork: The ability to draw team members together.  
  • Inspirational leadership: No matter who we're with, we can make the person feel a little better.