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Alert! You have been Hijacked!! Did we get your attention?

With all that is happening in the world and in our daily lives, we notice that we can frequently find ourselves off-course, reactive, upset, resigned and sometimes downright mad!!

How about you?

We notice that when certain news alerts show up, or family member calls in crisis, or a deadline is approaching that we are not ready for, we often find ourselves in a kind of shock or on rails. We get triggered (sometimes referred to as hijacked) and find ourselves thrown into a kind of auto pilot, or said another way automatic-ways-of-being-and-acting.

Some of our automatic-ways-of-being-and-acting are going into hyper fix it mode, getting angry and outraged and calling a friend to vent, or avoid the thing, i.e. close that file and work on something else.

What are some of your automatic-ways-of-being-and-acting after getting a jolt?  

In the Leadership Course we examine these automatic-ways-of-being-and-acting as Functional Constraints.  To examine this more closely we got permission to print this excerpt from the pre-classroom reading being updated for this year’s Leadership Course participants.


What is Meant by “Functional Constraints

[…] One’s way of being and action are fixated by a Functional Constraint in the following sense: When anger, for example, is the triggered fixated way of being and acting, while the way one expresses and acts on the anger may depend on the circumstances that triggered it, one’s way of being is fixed as (restricted to) anger. We may even try to hide our anger by suppressing our expression of it; but our being angry is still the fixed way of being.

In everyday language the behavior generated by a Functional Constraint is sometimes referred to as “knee jerk reaction”. Psychologists sometimes refer to this behavior as “automatic stimulus/response behavior” – where, in the presence of a particular stimulus (trigger), the inevitable response is an automatic set way of being and acting.

In the late 1990s, neuroscientists attributed the “automatic stimulus/response behavior” to what was termed an amygdala hijack (see LeDoux (1998) and Goleman (1995, Ch. 2). The amygdala is a part of the reptilian brain that evolution has preserved for us, and up until recently has been thought to be involved when something in the situation one is dealing with occurs in some way as a threat to one’s survival. Contemporary neuroscientists are calling for more research on the function of the amygdala as there may be more than just the amygdala involved in one’s response to a perceived threat to one’s survival.

However, further evolution has made perceived threats to survival include not only threats to our physical body and the opportunity for sex, but for human beings also includes threats to our identity. These threats to identity include evidence to the contrary or challenges to what we believe to be true about ourselves, others, and the world, that is, what we “know” to be right. The threat is often simply something said by someone that is contrary to what we believe. Threats to our identity also include the possibility of something we are consciously or non-consciously avoiding about ourselves or our lives even being touched on, or the possibility of something we are consciously or non-consciously hiding about ourselves or our lives being exposed.

Rather than being physically painful, such threats are emotionally or psychically painful. Although these threats are in no way a threat to one’s physical being, the human brain reacts as though they are a physical threat, that is, reacts with fight (including defensiveness) or flight (avoidance).

Such threats cause the brain to be “hijacked”, suppressing the rational functioning carried on in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. When our brain interprets something as a threat, the triggered response is limited to only fight or flight. (Flight includes freeze as a form of flight.) Saying the same thing in another way, when we are hijacked, our opportunity set for being and action is reduced to some expression of fight or flight.

For human beings, threats to a person’s identity that generate a hijack that suppresses rational functioning include threats to anything with which that person identifies. For example, when a person identifies with an idea, belief or theory (like a religious or political belief, or a scientific theory), a challenge to that idea, belief or theory often triggers a hijack. Other examples include such things as something someone says that seems to make us wrong, or even something so simple as having someone offer to correct an error we made, or a challenge to what we “know” to be the right way of doing something, or a challenge to our worldview or one or more of our frames of reference, or the threat of losing, or a threat to our authority or position (dominance), or the threat of being dominated, or a challenge to our way of being, or a threat of the loss of admiration (losing face). In short, threats to a person’s identity, or to anything with which that person identifies, can and often do generate a hijack that suppresses rational functioning.

When being a leader or exercising leadership, such hijack behavior is counter-productive in the extreme. Those you are leading almost invariably interpret such behavior as evidence of a dysfunctional leader. When triggered, one’s Functional Constraints leave one with little or no freedom to be or to act – one is so to speak “on rails” and therefore unable to respond appropriately (optimally) to the given situation.

If you have ever regretted the way you were being, or what you said or did with another when what you said or did was a knee-jerk reaction triggered by something in the situation that was almost certainly a personal example of a Functional Constraint in action.

Our Functional Constraints (triggerable set-ways-of-being-and-acting) often seem justified and even rational at the time, and are therefore difficult for us to recognize as a limitation on our being and action. (And, while such limitations on our behavior are difficult for us to recognize in ourselves, that we are stuck and “on rails” is often apparent to others.) In this course you will have the opportunity to identify for yourself your personal triggerable fixed ways of being and acting (your personal Functional Constraints), at least those related to being a leader and the exercise of leadership. And, you will have the opportunity to master those Functional Constraints in the sense that you will dramatically reduce the frequency with which you are triggered into these dysfunctional ways of being and acting.


So what can we do about our “hijacks” (beside join us in Cancun this year) …

The place to start is noticing that a trigger (hijack) is happening or more realistically has happened.

See if you can recognize the “fixed or set ways of being and acting” you find yourself in when triggered.

What are the emotions, how do you feel in your body (i.e I get hot), what is the primary way of being that gets stuck “on” (i.e. righteous, argumentative, defensive, withdrawn)

What kinds of actions do you take or not take (i.e. call a friend for agreement, pace around, sign up for things or look for a diversion).  

See if you can identify the thing that happened that “triggers your knee-jerk reactions” … look for the “trigger(s)”.

Bottom line see if you can begin to bring awareness to being hijacked. Any place you grab a hold of it (the triggers or the reactions) and bring awareness will give you the opportunity of choice … mainly the choice to sit back and allow your amygdala to calm down, allow your prefrontal cortex to get back in the game and access other ways-of-being-and-acting.  You can not escape being hijack (not as long as you have an identity) but you can gain some power & control in those reactive situations.

Happy ‘trigger’ hunting!


Anne, Hana, Maureen & Jeri,
The IEM Newsletter Team

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