Research Links Stress and Emotional Intelligence to Catastrophic Leadership Failure

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Leaders experiencing high levels of stress may be unable to access their emotional intelligence and IQ. The result is poor decisions, no decisions and/or catastrophe.

Why do good leaders with proven track records sometimes suddenly begin making really bad decisions--or no decisions? New research from Henry L. Thompson, Ph.D., President and CEO of High Performing Systems, Inc., shows that stress and its impact on cognitive and emotional abilities may provide a partial explanation.

These findings combined with Dr. Thompson's experience and research on leadership, stress, cognitive ability and emotional intelligence over the last 25 years indicate that when a leader's stress level is sufficiently elevated, whether on the front line of a manufacturing process, in the emergency room, the Boardroom or on the battlefield, his ability to fully and effectively use his cognitive ability and emotional intelligence in tandem to make timely and effective decisions is significantly impaired. This often leads to what Dr. Thompson calls Catastrophic Leadership Failure.

Catastrophic Leadership Failure (CLF™) occurs when a leader experiences enough stress to cause a dramatic drop in IQ and emotional intelligence or EQ (emotional quotient), resulting in a loss of access to his cognitive decision making abilities, combined with a heightened emotional state which makes him incapable of making appropriate leadership decisions. At some level of stress, there will be a sudden, catastrophic drop in leader performance, or CLF.

When CLF happens, a leader displays some or all of a characteristic set of adverse behaviors, such as: doesn't listen; over-analyzes; stops making decisions; makes "emotional" decisions; "flip-flops"; makes fear-based or anger-facilitated decisions; seeks self-gratification.

How Stress Affects Leader Behavior
When a leader encounters a stressor, a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones is released into his system resulting in a short-term increase in strength, concentration and reaction time. These changes may be helpful in the initial response to a stressful event. However if the stress becomes high enough for a long enough period of time, adverse effects will follow.

The initial release of neurotransmitters and hormones into a person's system begins to affect major brain systems, particularly the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdala. The PFC, or CEO of the brain, controls "higher" level thinking processes, such as logic, analysis, decision making, etc.---a significant portion of a leader's IQ.

The amygdala, sometimes described as the emotional center, plays a major role in emotional responses. It responds incredibly fast to incoming stimuli. But fortunately, in most cases, the
PFC is able to exert control over the amygdala reactions and help the leader avoid what Daniel Goleman calls "amygdala hijacking."

Too much stress "turns off" the PFC, resulting in a drop in cognitive ability (includes IQ) and ability to control the amygdala. At the same time, the increased stress "turns on" the amygdala creating an overly sensitive, heightened state of emotion. A leader loses a significant amount of ability to "control" his emotions, thus becoming temporarily less emotionally intelligent!

To test his theory that stress reduces the leader's ability to fully access his IQ and emotional intelligence, Dr. Thompson asked a group of leaders to complete the EQ-i®, an assessment that measures EQ, under normal conditions and then again under a simulated "stressed" mindset. Under normal conditions the total EQ-i (TEI) score averaged 101. The EQ-i has a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. The "stressed" condition resulted in a TEI average score of 80---more than a standard deviation lower.

This finding supports the hypothesis that EQ degrades under stress and also has significant implications for the interpretation of scores from the EQ-i and other measures of emotional intelligence.

Dr. Thompson cautions that leaders must be aware of the impact stress can have on their behavior. That extra shot of espresso or unexpected crisis might be enough to push a leader already experiencing too much stress over the edge into Catastrophic Leadership Failure.

High Performing Systems, Inc.
HPS provides leadership solutions that improve performance, using an integrated system of assessments, training, consulting and coaching. Clients receive customized solutions in all areas of leader and team development, including emotional intelligence, stress management, leader selection, placement and promotion, pre-hire, screening, personality, strategic planning, executive coaching, tiered leadership training and more.

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Deborah Thompson

Jan McQuain
High Performing Systems, Inc.
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