top of page
  • Theresa L Garcia

Feeling Emotionally Hijacked?

Knowledge is Power.

Knowing how to short-circuit, in-the-moment, an emotional hijack that would undermine both self-confidence and presence, remaining composed and focused during a high-stakes meeting or high-conflict conversation - is knowledge worth acquiring. Thanks to research in social neuroscience, we know that the brain processes and responds to emotional pain caused by “social threat” - like rejection, much like it responds to physical pain (Morris, et. al 1998a, Anderson & Phelps 2001, Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams, 2003, Olsson, Ebert, Banaji, & Phelps 2005), triggering an immediate, unconscious, and powerful survival-based, emotional response.

Are You Feeling Emotionally Hijacked?

When exacerbated by chronic fatigue and stress, loneliness, or simply being hungry, the resulting reflexive emotional response to a common workplace social trigger can cause an otherwise accomplished leader to say something that she immediately regrets, undermine her natural confidence with self-doubt, block creativity and increase anxiety. In other words – she experiences an emotional hijack. Armed with basic knowledge of the five social triggers (Shultz, Dayan & Montague, 1997, Eisenberger et al, 2003, D. Rock 2009, Rock & Ringleb, 2013) and the brain’s response process, and by practicing simple techniques to create new neural pathways, leaders can short-circuit experiencing an emotional hijack themselves, and minimize social triggers – and their associated social pain – within the organizations they lead. Sound complicated? It is not.

In 2015, the blockbuster 3D computer-animated comedy-drama film, Inside-Out produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures, used personified emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, to explain to its school-aged audiences – and their parents – how emotion can hijack personality and behavior from the Inside – Out. Both entertaining and instructional, the film condensed and translated the complex findings of neuropsychological research - that human emotions affect, and are affected by, interpersonal relationships - into a story of awareness and personal mastery that even a young child could understand. And that, leaders, is our collective Joy. Because every one of us, no matter our age or profession, can learn and apply simple techniques to short-circuit our own emotional hijack and create environments that minimize social pain and defensive behaviors in others.

What Are the Five Social Triggers?

  1. Belonging- the extent to which one feels accepted, valued, and included

  2. Autonomy – the extent to which one feels control of one’s own destiny

  3. Predictability – the extent one feels a sense of certainty in future behavior and circumstance

  4. Status – the perception of one’s position in the group hierarchy

  5. Fairness – the perception that group practices and treatment of individuals are equitable

Each of the five social triggers is rooted in the DNA of human survival. When individuals or group practices breach or threaten any one or more of these social triggers, the natural human response is to fight, flee or freeze. Practiced leaders heed their own warning signals to circumvent a possible emotional hijack themselves. Influential leaders apply management practices that minimize social threat and negative response behaviors in their organizations.

Belonging: There is power in numbers because historically, the probability of survival was significantly enhanced with the protective membership in a group, rather than being alone. In addition, we humans are wired to be social creatures, dependent upon others from birth to death for physical and emotional development and survival, nourishment, language, relationship and growth. Belonging, as evidenced by simply sharing things in common, like birthplace, school, community, profession, club affiliation or wearing the same professional sports jersey, stimulates a sense of belonging. Belonging reduces the perception of social threat, resulting in the extension of trust. Belonging is a powerful motivating force.

Autonomy: Every parent can attest to the onset of autonomy with their toddler’s first utterance of the singularly powerful word, “No!” While developmentally autonomy is most commonly associated with the “Terrible Twos”, the human need for a sense of control over one’s own destiny and the exercise of personal choice and freewill continually increases with knowledge, experience and enhanced perspective. Never underestimate the power of choice.


We are wired from birth to seek social reward and avoid social threat. Our brains constantly scour and evaluate our interactions and environments to protect us and increase our chances for survival. When our social interactions and environments are predictable, anticipated social threats are minimized, allowing us to reduce our defenses, feel relaxed, get creative, extend trust and collaborate. When those upon whom we rely behave unpredictably, or when our environments are unpredictable, perceived social threat is increased, trust is reduced, and defensive behaviors take precedence.


One need only look to social history to note that those with higher group status experience greater social power, live more comfortable lives and experience a greater probability of survival than those at the bottom of the pecking order. In our working lives, things are not much different. Those higher in organizational status enjoy more perks, power and professional influence than those in the lower echelons. Status takes many forms including, but not limited to position, social media, influence and prominence, and membership in exclusive clubs and associations. While the need for status varies by individual, the power of status is undeniable.


Fairness often defies an obvious and superficial sense of what is logical and rational. And that is the rabbit-hole where many leaders have descended into the abyss, because the perception of “fair and equitable” treatment is informed by individual experience, culture, emotion, logic, historical precedence, past-practice, predictability and congruence of intention and behavior. Evaluate the consistency and equability of your own leadership decisions and practices. Remember that the perception of inequitable treatment has ignited civil unrest and launched social revolutions in recent and historical societies, both domestic and abroad. This social trigger is a tinder-box. Will your leadership diffuse or ignite the flame?

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page