Senior Advisor Acas
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Leadership: how to avoid anger hijack with emotional intelligence

29th Mar 2019
Brain with puzzle piece missing
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Intellect can only get you so far in the workplace – emotional intelligence is what's required if you want to be an effective manager. 

Work is good for your health, so we are told. It’s certainly true that a good job can provide meaningful activity and friendship, as well as a means of paying the bills.

It is equally true, however, that there is nowhere outside of the family and home that provides such a source of anger, stress and frustration as the workplace. 

So what can we do to ensure that our experience of work is more peace and harmony than conflict and rage?

Road rage

As an Acas advisor, I spend a lot of time in my car and, along with many commuters, have plenty of opportunity to reflect on human behaviour.

Consider for a moment, the following two pieces of information:

  1. The average weight of a UK family car is about 1.8 metric tonnes (some readers will now be researching this)
  2. The I.Q. of the average driver sitting in a traffic queue is 100 (this is handy as driving a car does require reasonably high levels of cognitive intelligence)

So what makes an intelligent adult person wake up, have breakfast, wave goodbye to loved ones, set out to work and at some point in that journey dangerously drive the 1.8 metric tonne chunk of metal at another adult whilst at the same time emitting gestures of anger or obscenity? 

This relatively recent development in human evolution is, of course, referred to as ‘road rage’ and there is a very plausible explanation for it known as the amygdala hijack.

The amygdada hijack

The amygdala is part of the brain for many of the higher vertebrates and it regulates the fight or flight response that is key to the survival mechanism for many animals.

At the moment a threat is perceived, the amygdala can override the neocortex centre of higher thinking, and initiate a violent response.

Being emotionally intelligent involves tuning into your own emotions, understanding them and recognising the action you might have to take (or avoid taking!). 

In the wild or in the presence of actual physical threats, this can be a life-saving function.

In ordinary day-to-day living, however, this amygdala hijack can inspire impulsive responses we may live to regret.

‘Advanced common sense’

Fortunately, there is a way of avoiding this hijacking.

One of the common descriptors for emotional intelligence is 'advanced common sense.' What this common sense tells us is 'control your emotions and you can control the situation.'

When I am talking to leaders in business about emotional intelligence it is easy to drift into the science and debate the research, but the simple truth is this: being emotionally intelligent involves tuning into your own emotions, understanding them and recognising the action you might have to take (or avoid taking!). 

Many organisations are using EQ profiling tools as a strong indicator of where managers currently are and how they can improve their advanced common sense.   

EQ versus IQ

Here is a quick example of how our ‘intelligence quotient’ varies from our ‘emotional quotient’:

  • ‘Can you design a bridge/pulley system using discarded rope, empty wooden boxes and crampons, then apply a simple formula to explain the climb path to traverse the whole team across the bridge? This demonstrates your ‘IQ’
  • Can you tune in to the emotions of you and your team and make that build and journey a motivated and supported experience ensuring real buy-in from everyone? This demonstrates your ‘EQ’

Effective managers need both skills but as a recent Acas paper showed, a greater understanding of human psychology is essential if we are to motivate staff, treat them fairly and reduce incidents of workplace conflict.

Enjoyed this article? Read How EI makes your board more effective and benefits the whole organisation

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Kate Wadia
By Kate Wadia
22nd Sep 2016 16:34

Thank you Paul - I think the article here is a great explanation of the difference between EQ and IQ. I'm rather interested in the concept of Emotional Agility which seems to take this forward in 2 respects: firstly to imply that with EQ comes an ability to accept and manage self (rather than a "right" amygdala result) and secondly in expressing much that is familiar to the HR and psychology world but in terms that business managers may more readily take to applying. I wonder if you agree. Thanks for the read!

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