One sultry August afternoon in 1963- it was the same day that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the famous 'I have a dream' speech to a civil rights movement in Washington- Richard Robles, a seasoned burglar broke into an apartment in the swanky Upper East side of New York. Just paroled from a three year prison sentence for over hundred burglaries he had committed to support a heroin habit, he wanted, as he claimed years later, to do just one more before giving up crimes. He desperately needed money for his girlfriend and their three year old daughter.
The apartment belonged to two young women-Janice Wylie, 21, a researcher at Newsweek Magazine and Emily Hoffert, 23, a grade-school teacher. Robles hoped no one was home. But Emily was home. Threatening her with a knife, he tied her up. When Janice came in, he started to tie her up too.
As he told years later, Janice warned him that he would not get away with the crime- she would remember his face and help the police track him down. He who had promised himself that this was his last burglary, panicked at her warning completely losing control. In a paroxysm of fury, he grabbed a soda bottle and clubbed them unconscious. Then, he slashed and stabbed them with a kitchen knife.
Recalling the murders twenty five years later, he bewailed 'I just went bananas. My head exploded' Robles had more than enough time to regret those few minutes of rage. By 2002, Robles still remained in custody at Attica state prison in upstate New York for what became known as the 'Career Girl Murders.'
What happened to Robles who had just resolved to renounce his criminal life that goaded him to perpetrate such horrendous murders? As Goleman writes in 'Emotional Intelligence', it was a neural hijacking. It was that he reacted before he could fully register what was happening.
These hijackings, it is important to understand, are by no means isolated, horrific incidents that lead to heinous crimes like the Career Girl Murders. In less tragic form-but not necessarily less intense- they happen to us with fair frequency. "Think back", writes Goleman, "to the last time you lost it, blowing up at someone-your spouse or child, the driver of another car- to a degree that later, with some reflection and hindsight, seemed uncalled for."
As a leader or a manager, it's necessary that you watch out for such emotional hijackings in yourself and in people in the workplace because we're all more or less prone to it. Although we can't change our neural circuitry, we can learn to stay aware of the triggers of such neural hijackings and protect ourselves from them.