by Kim S. Nash

CIOs Beware: Sometimes Emotions Hijack the Brain

Mar 01, 20123 mins
IT Leadership

Management consultant Doug Lennick says “morally intelligent” leaders build high-performing, innovative companies

How does technology affect people’s moral judgments?

Technology is impersonal enough that one’s judgment can be impaired. One feels like they can say more and do more with technology than they might feel comfortable doing face-to-face. Harassment happens more easily because of technology. Bullying online is pretty common. CIOs are well familiar with damaging email messages that end up being discovered in litigation. But technology is not the cause of bad judgment.

What causes bad judgment by executives?

In the heat of the moment, in an emotionally charged situation, someone will whip off something on his smartphone or laptop or iPad and, in anger or frustration or anxiety, he will hit the send button. One has to have a combination of emotional competence and moral competence to avoid responding in a way that is later considered regrettable, possibly unethical or possibly immoral. Between the emotion and the response, people don’t take enough time to reflect.

What’s going wrong?

Successful leaders have to develop emotional competency. It will separate you from the pack. Cognitive and technical competencies are table stakes. In the executive suite, everybody’s going to be fairly smart and technically good at something. Business people try to hire those they think can do the job, but very often they pass their judgment based on how smart a candidate is. Yet if they lack emotional and moral competence, they won’t be able to sustain their performance. That’s because, under pressure, they will do things they wish they had not done. Without emotional competency, irrational decision-making trumps intelligence every time. If we can understand how the mind operates within the brain and how the brain is wired, we can begin to understand why, in certain situations, people do something regrettable.

Why does it happen?

Your reality is a combination of three things: your thoughts, your emotions and your physical experience. When that reality gets stimulated by some outside event, the way our brains are wired means we’re stimulated emotionally first.

It all happens very fast. Your emotional state can hijack the cognitive center. It might be, “I was so angry, I couldn’t think straight.”

When you’re emotional enough, the chemical activity in the brain impairs cognitive thinking. But you can do something about that if you know that.

Where do you start?

An executive’s effectiveness as a leader is a function of how well he manages himself. I have a client whose impulse control is low and stress tolerance is very high. He will fly off the handle and do things that he wishes he hadn’t done, but because he handles the stress well, he doesn’t think much of it. But people around him are adversely affected.

You can measure how adaptable you are and your ability to respond to pressure with lots of tools, [such as] your organization’s 360-degree feedback data and the Emotional Quotient Inventory test. We have the moral competency inventory at

Follow Senior Editor Kim S. Nash on Twitter: @knash99.