CEOs and Emotional Brain

Understanding how the brain works starts with emotional connection. Emotional connection is essential to our overall performance, insuring our brain function. How we interact with people that we work with provides a cue of how emotionally connected we are. 

Emotions orient and steer us away from danger. They also tell us what really matters. Emotions are powerful in how they impact our interactions and our well-being. When we are stressed, our amygdala, the emotional center of our brain is hijacked by our survival need, so we have to do a better job in understanding our emotions.

Emotion vs. cognition

BrainIf you look at the structure of the brain, you will see that the prefrontal cortex (responsible for thinking, planning and decision-making) has no connections to the emotional region of the brain. However, the emotional region has massive connections with the prefrontal cortex. What this means is that while it is difficult for us to control our emotions, it is very easy for our emotions to control our thoughts. Think of it like a one-way street where your emotions can drive your thoughts but your prefrontal cortex can not drive your emotions.

Keeping this concept in mind, it is easier to understand things that we have all experienced. For example, once you are afraid or anxious, it is very hard to say, “I am not going to be afraid anymore.” At this point, fear or anxiety has taken over your brain and you can not think your way out of it. You must understand your emotions to regain control of your thoughts. For our brain to stay calm and in control of emotion, we need to reestablish an emotional bond. 

Research shows people who have strong emotional bonds have far better interactions and make far better decisions than those who have weaker emotional bonds.

In other words, groups are smarter than single individuals when their members are able to effectively connect emotionally with one another. When a group lacks this type of secure connection, the quality of their decisions and actions suffer. So when you are faced with a difficult or stressful situation, it is essential for you to repair the connection before making a decision.


Simon Newman, Former President of Mount St. Mary’s

Recently we have seen the consequence of a leader without understanding of the emotional brain. Simon Newman recently resigned as the President of Catholic college, Mount St. Mary’s. His actions received national attention after he compared struggling students to bunnies that needed to be killed. These comments as well as other actions he took were out of line and out of touch with the school’s core values, causing a tsunami of emotional outburst.

The board took steps to apologize to staff for the “breakdown in compassionate communication,” however, it was not capable of regaining the trust needed to repair the relationship. 

After Newman resigned, one member expressed “I think everyone’s top priority is moving forward with healing, and with rebuilding trust.” Clearly Newman was emotionally disconnected with his board. If he had better skills in recognizing and being aware of his emotions, he could have prevented making such statements and preventing the organization from such a terrible experience. 

A CEO who understands the effect of emotional disconnection on the function of the brain, has a better chance of making better decisions and actions.

Sometimes we express emotions such as anger when less volatile expression could be in our best interest, or we make decisions that may lack an appreciation for emotional consequence for ourselves and others. When people are under stress, these kinds of disconnections between emotions and thoughts should be expected and countered with focusing on creating an emotionally safe environment.

We help leaders become more effective through the Emotional Connection process. If you would like to learn more about how you can create safe environments and stronger relationships with your board or team, please contact us at [email protected].

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