Leadership Lessons from Road Rage Part 1 – Name Emotions to Improve Self Awareness

Improve Emotional Intelligence

The road-raging maniac on your daily commute can teach you a lot about yourself. Improve emotional intelligence and advance your career by naming your emotions.

We’ve all seen the car on the freeway, swerving in and out of traffic, tailgating and cutting people off. It’s easy to spot because the driver is violating the social norms about driving in traffic. If we were to talk to that driver in a casual conversation, we would likely all agree that safe driving is good for everyone. No one wants to be in a wreck! We all want to get to work on time or home to our loved ones at the end of the day.

The behavior of the road-raging driver is contrary to what a rational person would do. That driver wouldn’t teach his/her children to drive aggressively and recklessly! Yet somehow, in that moment, reason has vanished and the driver is fueled by pure emotion, acting in a way contrary to his/her own values and beliefs.

What you’re witnessing on the freeway is a hijacking – an amygdala hijacking, to be exact. The amygdala, the emotional/irrational part of the brain, has taken over. The neocortex, the rational part of the brain responsible for logic and critical thinking, has effectively shut down. The driver has shifted into a “fight or flight” response mode.

If we can become this emotional over the simple act of driving, imagine what can happen when we feel our projects, teams, or careers threatened.

Road Rage Happens at Work

The same amygdala hijacking happens at the office. Just like on the highway, it’s dangerous – it can damage your reputation, your leadership, and your effectiveness at influencing stakeholders and gaining alignment. The personal brand that you’ve worked years to build can be lost in an instant if you lash out in an emotional response.

Just as we would all agree that safe, efficient driving benefits everyone, we also aspire to create company cultures where effective teams collaborate to achieve common goals. We want to create positive environments where colleagues can learn and grow – yet many times we witness the same road-rage phenomenon at work: back-stabbing, blaming, personal attacks, and even yelling. As we’re focusing on self awareness in this article, we must admit that sometimes we have our own emotional outbursts in the workplace, or make emotion-fueled decisions that have a negative impact to the business over the long term.

The prevention for “road rage” at work, and the damaging consequences, is developing our self awareness to improve Emotional Intelligence (EQ).

Self Awareness is the Foundation to Improve Emotional Intelligence

You can learn to interrupt an amygdala hijacking, and choose a different reaction, by developing your EQ. In their book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves reveal that EQ “counts for 58% of performance in all types of jobs.” EQ is a greater predictor of job performance than IQ, and it’s a skill that can be practiced and developed. Noticing and managing your response to triggers will help you avoid emotional reactions that could cause long-term damage to your reputation and effectiveness.

EQ is a combination of four competencies – self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management. The foundation of all is self awareness – recognizing, in the moment, your own emotions as they happen. While it sounds simple, Bradberry and Greaves found that only 36% of people tested could accurately identify their emotions as they happened. 

There Are Only Five Emotions

Before we can focus on improving our self awareness, we have to know what emotions are possible. Fortunately, there are only five: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and shame. Memorize these names, because understanding them is the first step to increasing self awareness and improving your EQ.

Every feeling you experience is derived from these five emotions, ranging in intensity from mild to extreme. For example, if you’re feeling nervous about a presentation, that is a mild degree of fear. If you’re frustrated because someone is roadblocking your initiative, that frustration is a degree of anger. If you’re beaming with pride because the CEO publicly recognized your performance, that pride is a more intense level of happiness.

Naming Your Emotions Increases Self Awareness

Now that you know the five emotions, you can take the first step to increasing your self awareness. When you feel yourself swelling with emotion, pause for a second and name the emotion. Figure out which of the five emotions you are feeling. If there are more than one, acknowledge that too. Say to yourself, “I am feeling fear.” It sounds easy, but you may find it’s harder than you think! You’re pressing your neocortex, the rational part of your brain, back into action.

At first, it will be difficult to remember to name your emotion in the moment. That’s okay – once the emotion has passed, look back in a time of reflection and give it a name. Practice this skill regularly and you will improve your self awareness and set the foundation for developing the other EQ skills, like self management. This skill is the first step to improve emotional intelligence.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll build on this foundation as we look at the next step to improve self awareness: naming your triggers. In the meantime, please drive safely – if you see another driver in the throes of an amygdala hijacking, slow down and give them space. 

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