Leadership Lessons: I’ve Been Hijacked!
Wouldn’t it be lovely if one could live in a constant state
Some of the most commonplace words can be some of the biggest dividers
What if there was no they?
What if there was only us?
From “clothesline” by Marilyn Maciel
Life is a Verb by Patti Digh
by Daniel Goleman
Difficult Conversations by
Doug Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen
Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott
Dialogue by William Issacs
Immunity to Change by
Kegan and Lehey
"I never saw an instance of one or two disputants convincing the other by argument."
“I totally blew it—lost my cool and began arguing with him just like I’ve always done. I know others in the meeting were
looking at me thinking ‘there he goes again,’ but this guy just makes me furious.” Doug, a chemical engineer who is the
newly appointed leader of a division of a large international corporation, was struggling mightily with some of his peers.
From his point of view, they stood in the way of the business expansion he was proposing for the company, and their
requests for data to back up his proposals were insulting time-wasters. He was the one with the business acumen
and the technical knowledge to back up his ideas, not them. This arrogant stance fueled by his highly judgmental attitude
was not working for him, he acknowledged, yet try as he may, conversations with these folks seemed to knock him so
completely off balance that he went on automatic pilot acting in ways that did not serve in the least. It was as if his very identity was somehow being threatened.
“This exchange happened hours ago and I’m still shaking with frustration. It has ruined my day. I can’t seem to let it go.
Why is this stuff so hard?” What’s going on for Doug happens to all of us at times. Doug had experienced an
amygdala hijack. The amygdala is the “fight or flight” part of the brain that holds emotional memory, and its job is to react
to threats to our safety. It will react similarly to the threat of being eaten by a grizzly bear as it will to an ego attack.
According to Daniel Goleman, an amygdala hijack occurs when our response to a situation is out of proportion with the
actual threat bringing on our fight or flight reaction that leaves us with little ability to rely on intelligence or reasoning.
Studies indicate that the immediate result of a hijack is a decrease in working memory. Adrenaline is released and
will have an effect for 18 minutes, and other hormones are released into the bloodstream that can take 3-4 hours to clear.
“The first thing you can do is sit quietly for a minute or two and breathe,” I suggested. Doug settled down. He literally
seemed to come back to himself. Now beyond his anger, he did a gut check. “I feel a great sense of regret. This was a
lost opportunity,” he said quietly. Drawing on some earlier work we had done together on his immunity to change, Doug
talked about how quickly he judged others as not as smart or competent as he, and how this assessment leads him to miss opportunities to learn from and connect to
others. Underneath this pattern was the fear of making a mistake—a need to be perfect thereby proving he was
smarter than everyone else. As gifted and successful as he had been up until now, Doug knew that he had to find a way
to manage himself differently if he was to succeed in this hugely important leadership role. Never before had so much
been at stake. “I know what I need to do but I don’t know how. I’ve got to find a way to work with not against these guys
which means I’ve got to think about them differently. ”
Doug’s goal is to build productive partnerships rather than adversarial ones among his colleagues. He admits it’s slow
going. He feels awkward and makes mistakes, but he sees progress which inspires him to keep going. This is a work in
progress! Here’s how he proceeded with Joe.
1. Take preventive measures to prevent a hi-jack
Doug identified physical signs to alert him to his emotions before they took over his behavior. So when his heart starts
to race and his throat tightens, he knows to pause, breathe and push his reset button. He takes a deep breath and asks
himself “What is my intention here? Is it to be right and make him wrong OR is it to find a way to work together? With
practice, these questions can lead him back to a place where a productive conversation might actually occur.
2. Examine my story
After a conversation goes awry, Doug has a conversation (with himself) about what just happened. First he
examines the story he’s telling himself about his own intentions and those other person. Simple
enough….but is it really? Problem is--we tend to misunderstand the intentions of the other person
assuming the worst and we treat ourselves more charitably in the intentions department focusing blame on
the other. “It’s clear Joe does not want me to succeed and he does everything in his power to put road blocks in my way.”
3. Seek to understand Joe’s story
Next, he steps outside of his own story and imagines himself into the other person’s story. The experience
of being understood rather than being interpreted is unbelievably powerful. “Where is Joe coming from?
How might Joe see this situation? What’s at stake for him? What if he does have information that I’ve
missed or don’t have access to? How do my actions impact him? How am I contributing to the problem?” In
this way, Doug is learning to see the problem as the difference between the stories of stakeholders who see
the world differently and have powerful feelings about what’s going on.
4. Invite him to partner in figuring things out
Doug knows how important it is to change the dynamic from arguing to understanding, and now that he has
recognized that Joe has his own version of things, he will ask Joe to meet with him to better understand
each other’s story and how they can work together to accomplish mutual objectives.
“Somewhere between right and wrong is a place we can move and talk.” Rumi
TIPS, TOOLS AND PRACTICES: Choose with Integrity
Choosing with integrity means finding ways to speak up that honor your reality, the reality of others, and your
willingness to meet in the center of that large field. It’s hard sometimes.
"When we are real with ourselves and others, the change occurs before the conversation has ended." Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations
© 2010 Bette George & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.
Choose with Integrity
Speak up, yet detach from “rightness.”
Stand tall, yet bend to meet others.
Move from Why aren’t they doing more? To Why aren’t we doing more? To Why am I not doing more?
Do something. Extend yourself.
From Life is a Verb by Patti Digh
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