Effective leadership involves a million traits. As discussed in What Leadership Isn’t, it’s often easier to explain what leaders want to avoid than it is to review the laundry list of traits effective leaders employ. This post is about one behavior to avoid: getting triggered.
As I’ve coached leaders over the years, and indeed as I myself have learned where I don’t show up as well, I’ve come to realize just how many problems can be traced back to leaders getting triggered. Those who tend to control their triggers typically build better relationships, have more versatility in interpersonal dynamics, and learn more from their interactions.
Why is this so important? Studies show that when you’re triggered, your body leaps into the “Fight or Flight” response. Daniel Goleman, in his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence, described getting triggered as incurring an “Amygdala Hijack.” As he explains, when we get triggered, our brain bypasses the more rational contributions from the neocortex and listens exclusively to the amygdala, the part of our brain that process emotions.
This is why we often get tunnel vision when we’re upset and think the only possible explanation for someone’s actions is that he’s evil, and our only choice is to give him a piece of our mind. We aren’t able to access our rational brain, which may have different perspectives to share. This is also why we often wake up the next morning with some new perspectives on the situation (or new regrets about how we handled the situation in the moment). In the morning, enough time has passed to get us un-triggered, and our rational brains finally can provide some input on the situation. We really want that input! Without it, we are operating with HUGE blindspots that can lead us to make poor decisions and interpersonal mistakes.
So the question becomes: How do we avoid getting triggered, and how do we regain access to our rational brains when we are hijacked?
- First, learn what your triggers are. Think of your deeply held values about who you are and how people ought to behave. Often we get triggered because we vehemently disagree with how we’re being characterized, or we don’t want someone to get away with behaving in a way that violates our rules of engagement. Explore your values, the attributes you’re most proud of, your pet peeves, etc. You may find you tend to get triggered when these are violated.
- Second, learn what happens to you physically when triggered. Does your heart rate speed up? Do you start to feel hot? Do you start to get animated and energetic? Do your hands start to shake? What physical cues can you recognize as a signal to you that you’re getting hijacked? Remember, you won’t be able to cognitively recognize it because you’re not accessing your rational brain, but you might notice a change in your physiology.
- Third, develop a method to process the trigger and get back to your rational brain before making any decisions or taking any actions. This takes discipline, because it’s so tempting to act when triggered, but over time you’ll start to appreciate this forced pause.
When I feel my hands start shaking and my body tightening up, I take that as a signal that I’m triggered. When I notice these physical cues, I know that I’m not allowed to send any emails or have any conversations until I get some exercise. Typically, when I revisit the situation in a few hours, I’m grateful I didn’t take the action I was about to take when I was triggered.
This is an immensely important leadership attribute that goes by many names, including: Authentic, Poised Under Pressure, Consistent, Calm, Self-Aware, and Self-Control. Learn yourself, learn your triggers, learn when to anticipate yourself potentially getting hijacked, and learn how to regain control once you do. It will make you a better leader and a better colleague.
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!