Is Emotional Hard-Wiring Undermining Your Leadership Brand?

For nearly all leaders, the need to be and feel in control is a driving force. But what happens when your actions, reactions and decisions come from a place other than your rational thought processes? These moments happen more often than most leaders care to admit, and can dramatically impact their leadership brand, style, tone and approach. They often create limits to personal effectiveness and performance.

The stress-inducing truth is, every human being — including leaders — comes with a uniquely complicated system of tangled emotional hard-wiring. No one’s emotional hard-wiring is identical to that of another. As psychology professor and author Lisa Feldman Barrett recently put it, “Everyone has the same networks but the wiring is dependent on experience.” The relationships we have, what the people in our lives do to us, what we do to them, what we experience, how we react to those experiences, how we share those experiences with others or not — all of these factors shape our emotional hard-wiring.

To further complicate the matter, our emotional hard-wiring includes both the unconscious and subconscious, and is not readily available to our conscious mind. It is so well hidden that we often don’t realize it’s there until it rears its ugly head and comes out in ways that are hurtful, unreasonable, embarrassing, and even destructive.

Confronted by the right trigger, a CEO may lash out at an employee in a public setting, or worse… Facing prolonged periods of stress, more than a few leaders have turned to substance abuse to cope.
This should be more than sufficient justification for leaders to uncover and understand their emotional hard-wiring, to start untangling it. Start this process by asking yourself these three simple questions.

1. “Do I have an unusually negative reaction to certain behaviors?” Do you remember the last time you got fuming, lividly angry at someone — someone with whom you have an important, longstanding and valued relationship — because of something they did? What did that person do that annoyed, frustrated, and incensed you so much that you just lost it? Chances are, “if you spot it, you got it.”

In other words, behaviors that challenge us so much in others are usually the things we carry from past experience deep-down in ourselves. For example, someone who was bullied as a child may have a powerful negative reaction when perceiving someone is being bullied or is acting like one.

Asking this question inevitably leads to reflecting on how you were raised, life events that shaped you, and things you did as a child to get love and avoid pain. It also helps you to place your focus not on the person with whom you were angry, but on the true underlying, internal sources of that anger.

2. “Do I have an unusually negative reaction to certain topics?”

A prominent chairman, his CEO, and his CFO were discussing executive expenses when things got heated. The chairman — usually sensitive and kind-hearted — unexpectedly exploded, and the mood in the room became tense.

Fortunately, rather than adjourn, the three executives stuck with it, trying to better understand why the chairman had become so uncharacteristically angry. He felt that his integrity was being questioned and that they were criticizing how he used his hard-earned resources to support his family and his philanthropic interests, and this struck two of his most deep-seated emotional triggers: integrity and protecting his family.

The CEO and the CFO, on the other hand, hadn’t made any judgments about the chairman’s choices. They just wanted to make sure they were meeting the company’s fiscal responsibility and transparency needs.

It’s a common example. In this scenario, the chairman’s willingness to open himself up to talking about why he had reacted this way and the CEO and the CFO’s willingness to dig into an uncomfortable topic helped diffuse the situation and build greater openness, self-awareness, and trust within the group.

3. “How often do I find myself saying, ‘That was not my intention,’ or ‘That’s not what I meant?’ Most leaders can’t say “never” to this question — and that’s a good thing. Leaders must be direct and adapt to different situations and contexts. For instance, a CEO speaking in a company-wide all-hands meeting is in the unpleasant position of accounting for the feelings and unique angles of hundreds or thousands of diverse teams and individuals. And they will definitely fail with at least one of those individuals.

But if a leader finds himself saying, “That’s not what I meant,” often and in many situations, something in the way the leader is communicating is running counter to his true intentions — and this hints at a tangle in his emotional hard-wiring that needs to be uncovered and dealt with.

The purpose of asking these questions is not to simply expose emotional issues so we can wallow in them. On the contrary, these questions provide a wonderful starting point for leaders. In exploring and understanding your upbringing, in realizing and fully owning the part you play in your disconnection with another person, in taking time to understand the lives and challenges of your parents and grandparents, and in knowing what motivates you, you are empowered to better control your motivations and become more comfortable leading from a position of openness, honesty, and vulnerability.