Leaders Who Manage Triggers

Call it a trigger, a pet peeve or that thing that grinds your gears…we all have them. Some unique, some recurring, there are those instances that set off a nearly automatic and charged response which typically ends poorly. Conventional wisdom suggests that difficult thoughts and feelings have no place at work, though. Champ up, stuff it down and put on your cheerful (or at least stoic) face and move on. 
By unpacking what is going on biologically though, we find that what causes leaders to stumble is not having the undesirable feelings and thoughts, it is that they get hooked by them.  In other words, rather than attempting to avoid, the best leaders manage, those triggers and the responses to them.

The diagram above illustrates how we experience this in the brain. On the left, something triggers us which prompts an emotional reaction in the part of the brain that regulates feeling. It is often referred to as our fight or flight response, it is nearly automatic and it is virtually instantaneous. 
Next, a different part of our brain assigns meaning to the emotion as we process and begin to form a response (see “Self Talk”). This is the story we quickly tell ourselves about the trigger and our emotional reaction. When we act completely without thinking (known as an “amygdala hijack”), that typically shows up as out of control and out of measure behavior that does more harm than good. 
If we act without examining the story, we may also respond with actions that lead to undesired outcomes. However, if we pause and challenge the story before deliberately choosing our response, our actions open up additional and more positive results. In examination of the story it is important to remember, it does not matter if the story is accurate. The question is, does the story you are choosing get you closer to what you want?
But how do we change something that all happens in milliseconds? 
1 – Create space. When you are in the moment and feel triggered, hit “pause” by taking a walk. Count to ten. Take a few deep breaths. Whatever works for you to create space between the trigger and your next move, do that. It starts with awareness which increases the more you pay attention. 
2 – Assess. Ask, how did I get here? Why am I feeling triggered by this? What is the story I am telling myself about what happened? What do I want?
3 – Choose your response. Rather than being limited to an automatic reaction, examine alternative stories that might be true. Then take deliberate action on a path that gets you closer to your desired outcome. 
This all happens so quickly it takes significant practice to do well. To accelerate that progress, consider reflecting on a recent trigger event with these questions so you will be better prepared the next time to create space, assess and choose a response. 
  • What has you feeling triggered?
  • What is the story you are telling yourself about that trigger?
  • Is that story 100% true? Are you sure it is 100% true?
  • What do you want?
  • Will that story get you what you want?
  • Looking at the event from a different perspective, what is one alternative story?
  • What story are you choosing? What is your next action?
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”           -Dr. Viktor Frankl