Stress and Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman provided much of the seminal research around Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and helped us understand how important EQ is to leadership effectiveness. He coined the concept of the “amygdala hijack” as an episode in which a person fails to control their emotional response to a situation and overreacts, usually saying something they later regret.

Additional research suggests that stress has a lot to do with these reactions. Since most leaders live on the edge of overload, it seems valuable to understand the impact that stress may have on us. Dr. Dick Thompson, author of The Stress Effect: Why Smart Leaders Make Dumb Decisions, makes the following observations:

The prefrontal cortex (PFC), or CEO of the brain, controls “higher” level thinking processes, e.g., logic, analysis, decision-making, etc.—a significant portion of the leader’s IQ.

The amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, responds incredibly fast to incoming stimuli. Fortunately, in most cases, the PFC is able to exert control over the amygdala reactions and help the leader avoid an “amygdala hijacking.”

Too much stress “turns off” the PFC, resulting in a drop in cognitive ability (including IQ) and in ability to control the amygdala.

At the same time, the increased stress “turns on” the amygdala creating an oversensitive heightened state of emotion.

A leader loses a significant amount of ability to “control” his or her emotions, thus becoming temporarily less emotionally intelligent! Stress reduces the leader’s ability to fully access their IQ and  EQ abilities!

Since stress shuts down the CEO of our brain and engages the emotional center, it is critical to be aware of our stress level and to develop strategies for ensuring that our load does not become overload. The tough thing about leadership, is that shift can happen in a matter of minutes, on the next phone call or when the next person walks through your door. Step back and consider what disciplines you are building into your life to keep your stress at the optimal level. Hmm?  Optimal Stress, that will be a topic for another discussion.

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