Emotional Hijack: When Emotions Take Control

We’ve all been there – that moment when emotions take over and we react without thinking. This experience, known as “emotional hijack,” can have significant consequences in the workplace if not managed properly. Understanding what drives these moments and learning preventative strategies are key to maintaining healthy working relationships.

What is Emotional Hijack?

Emotional hijack refers to a strong emotional reaction that overrides rational thinking and self-control. Common behaviors during a hijack include jumping to conclusions, bursting out in anger, shutting down, or demonstrating other extreme emotional reactions. Regret, embarrassment, and apologies often follow once the moment has passed.

Emotional hijacks are intense experiences where we act compulsively without consideration of long-term impacts. The reaction often feels automatic and beyond our control in the heat of the moment, even though we later wish we had responded differently. Sometimes emotional hijacks build up over time if frustrations aren’t properly addressed.

The 4 Stages of Emotional Hijack

Emotional hijack often follows a common pattern:

  1. Identifying the Trigger – The hijack begins with an event that acts as a “trigger,” sparking a strong emotion like anger, anxiety, or humiliation. For example, a coworker publicly criticizing your work can initiate feelings of anger or inadequacy.
  2. Feeling a Strong Emotion – The emotion intensifies rapidly, building in the body and mind. Heart rates spike, face flush, thoughts narrow. As emotion strengthens, rational perspectives diminish.
  3. Automatically Reacting – We react compulsively to the emotion rather than responding thoughtfully. Reactions might include yelling, criticism, stonewalling, or even aggression. We operate in “survival mode” without considering long-term consequences.
  4. Regret – After the moment passes, a sense of regret often follows. We may feel embarrassed by an aggressive outburst or disappointed in ourselves for losing control.

Developing Emotional Intelligence to Prevent Hijacks

Low emotional intelligence can lead to move instances of emotional hijacking. When unable to self-regulate emotions, trivial triggers can escalate into disproportionate reactions. Communication shuts down. Teams fracture. Over time, negative patterns erode workplace relationships and performance.

Emotional intelligence requires self-awareness, self-control, empathy, and relationship skills. Strategies like the below build capacity:

  • Name specific emotions in themoment rather than reacting blindly
  • Notice physical cues, like tense muscles or clenched fists
  • Pause before responding to let intensity pass
  • Put yourself in others’ shoes during conflicts

Collective emotional intelligence also matters. Workplace norms around communication, rules, and understanding leadership dynamics determine how well companies navigate tense situations. Emotionally intelligent cultures value respect, accountability, and resilience.

Without emotional intelligence, trivial matters detonate more easily while underlying issues go unaddressed. Companies must prioritize training and norms that proactively shape response patterns. The baseline begins with each employee’s commitment to self-awareness, empathy, and relationship maintenance. It ends with healthier, higher performing teams. To develop your emotional intelligence and boost the performance of you and your team, check out our event, “Emotionally Intelligent Leadership: Get the Best from Yourself and Your Team.”