Emotionally Reactive Leadership

Jun 2, 2020 | Anxiety, leadership

In an earlier previous post, called Decision Making Process, I compared leadership that stems from emotional reactivity (ER) to leadership based on a person’s level of differentiation of self. I would like to spend this week exploring how ER negatively influences a person’s ability to make solid decisions.

To understand ER one must understand the brain.

The brain has one purpose; survival.  As anxiety increases the brain monitors the incoming stress and recognizes how much energy will be needed to respond to the stress (Barrett, Quigley, & Hamilton, 2016; McEwen, 2016b). This response to stress moves the brain into allostasis (Sterling & Eyer, 1988).

Allostasis is the brain’s method of returning the body to resting equalibrium after stress has been introduced (Sterling & Eyer, 1988).  This occurs through the autonomic nervous stytem becoming stimulated, which in turn increases the hormones of catecholamines and glucocorticoid in the blood and tissues of the body (McEwen, 2016a). This increase of hormones gives the body the capability to counter the threat by triggering the fear response of “fight, flight, or freeze” (F3; Davis, 2019).

 The F3 responses resides in the oldest part of the brain, the lizard brain (MacLean, 1978). All living creatures share this part of the brain. If you watch a lizard reacting to stress, you can see the lizard brain utilizing F3 to survive.The human brain uses this part of the brain to instinctively step out of the way of a speeding bus.

This lizard brain is also where the emotional system resides. Making decisions based on ‘feelings’ instead of thinking through the situation is a hallmark of emotional system decisions. The decisions might seem to make sense for the short term, but these short term solutions create even more problems in the long-run.

An ER decision making example:

The XYZ Widget Co, makes one wonderful widget and the customers love the widget. One day, a more junior manager mentions that the sales of the widget has taken a slight downturn. This junior manager is concerned about the company only having this single widget as their product line.  

The CEO of the company invented this special widget and becomes insulted to think people are no longer loving the widget. The CEO proclaims the long history of good sales and indicates people will always love the widget. The CEO summarily dismisses the possibility of having difficulties with continuing the high level of sales.

The CEO does allow the C-Suite gathers to discuss this junior manager’s disturbing statement. After long hours of debate, they conclude the junior manager was wrong and the CEO was right. They decide to not address this issue publicly because they don’t want to stir the water. They assure each other this was a ‘non’ issue and it will soon go away.

The junior manager is told to put this ridiculous idea aside and get back to work. Soon thereafter, the junior manage leaves the XYZ Widget Co. The sales of the widget continues to decrease. By the time the C-Suite focuses on expansion of the product line, it is too late. After clinging to life for a number of years, XYZ Widget Co closes it’s door.

This CEO and C-Suite made an ER decision. It certainly eased the short term tension, but in the long run it was a disaster.

Identifying the ER decisions

  • The CEO became anxious about how people were reacting to the widget and responded with a knee jerk reaction. Becoming insulted when someone does not agree with you is an emotional response to how you perceive yourself and other people seeing you differently.
  • The C-Suite was more concerned about agreeing with the CEO than finding a creative way to manage this new problem. Becoming stuck, or digging in your heels about previous decisions is an emotional response to the anxiety of change.
  • The C-Suite decided to not address the problem publicly because it might cause more problems. If one junior manager recognized a difficult situation, you can be sure there were others in the company with the same knowledge. Arbitrarily deciding to refuse an honest conversation around difficult situations is an emotional response to the anxiety of losing control.

Reducing ER decision making

The most important aspect of reducing ER is to recognize when it happens.

  • Are your decisions arbitrary, do you respond with knee-jerk reactions, or do you make a decision and dig your heels in? When people are making decisions out of the lizard brain, they are unconsciously afraid they are not going to survive.
  • Once you make a decision, do you find yourself with less anxiety? The purpose of an ER decisions is to immediately lower your anxiety. Even though the decision might not make sense, it produces less anxiety so it seems like a good decision. There is a vast difference between remaining calm to make a solid decision and an ER decision so your anxiety lowers.
  • Can you look back on decisions you have made and recognize ones that seemed sensible at the time, but now you can identify the difficulty they caused later? These unintended consequences are easy to see the farther you are from the decision.
  • When you hear someone else’s ideas, do you: roll your eyes, have negative facial expressions, respond with contempt, ridiculing the person or idea, disregard the person’s capability (Kerr & Bowen, 1988)? These are all external examples of the internal ER process.

Lowering the ER provides the person the ability to increase decisions based on differentiation of self. I will be discussing differentiation of self in the next blog post.

Julie Swanberg-Hjelm, PhD

Julie helps organizations and individuals recognize how the interpersonal relationships are responding to anxiety and how to create new patterns of response. When people are able to develop a greater capability of lowering their emotional reactivity, they can develop different ways to interact with problems and discover creative methods of addressing those problems.


Barrett, L. F., Quigley, K. S., & Hamilton, P. (2016). An active inference theory of allostasis and interoception in depression. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1708), 20160011. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2016.0011

Davis, E. L. (2019). Autonomic nervous system. In M. H. Bornstein (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Lifespan Human Development (pp. 205–208). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781506307633.n80

Kerr, M. E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation. New York, NY: Norton.

MacLean, P. D. (1978). A mind of three minds: Evolution of the human brain. The Science Teacher, 45(4), 31–39. Retrieved from search-ebscohost-com.proxy1.ncu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ182152&site=eds-live

McEwen, B. S. (2016a). Central role of the brain in stress and adaptation: Allostasis, biological embedding, and cumulative change. In G. Fink (Ed.), Stress: Concepts, cognition, emotion, and behavior. Handbook of stress. (Vol 1, pp. 39–56). London, England: Academic Press.

McEwen, B. S. (2016b). In pursuit of resilience: Stress, epigenetics, and brain plasticity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1373(1), 56–64. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13020

Sterling, P., & Eyer, J. (1988). Allostasis: A new paradigm to explain arousal pathology. In S. Fisher & J. Reason (Eds.), Handbook of life stress, cognition, and health (pp. 629–649). New York, NY: Wiley.