Don’t let your triggers sabotage your leadership

Deb Hordon has six strategies to help you stay cool, calm and collected. 

Reading time: 4 minutes

Jack seethed when he learned that his colleague had signed a deal where the professional services firm couldn’t deliver again. His colleague made exactly the same mistake a few months earlier, resulting in lost profits and over-extending the team, which cascaded to errors with other clients.

The most frustrating part was that Jack’s colleague knew it was a mistake the first time and was supposed to avoid making the same one again. Jack had even set up guard rails to prevent it from recurring. The fact that it occurred enraged Jack.

However, he hid his feelings with this colleague because he didn’t want to “behave badly,” but soon after, he exploded at his colleague’s boss, Jack’s peer.

He unleashed anger in a manner that impacted their relationship. He knew it wasn’t productive leadership behaviour, and he would have to unwind the damage.

In other words, he was triggered.

What are triggers?

“Triggers” are situations, external conditions, or other people’s behaviours and actions that cause intense emotional reactions.

We respond because the external situations or other person’s behaviours either violate values we believe strongly (such as “excellence,” “work ethic,” “honesty,” “order,” “achievement,” “predictability,” “peace/tranquility,” etc) or touch pieces of scar tissue inside us (such as previous mistakes made – which was the case with Jack’s colleague).

Triggers are universal, yet each person’s triggers are unique and autobiographical.

Trigger behaviours are outward expressions of intense emotional stress. Our trigger behaviours can be unglamorous and destructive.

Saying, “I’m not sure I can have a productive conversation at the moment, so I’ll take some time to reflect on how to respond” is a good phrase

Examples include: passive aggression, saying hurtful things directly, shouting, bullying, minimising others or their contributions, crying, building coalitions against someone or something, attacking, withdrawing, undermining, manipulating, becoming totally unemotional, and insults.

Our trigger behaviours will derail the great leadership we’ve worked so hard to establish. As a leader, you’ll be triggered at some point in your career, and you’ll have to lead others while you’re triggered.

How to lead effectively while triggered

If you’re in a scenario where you need to manage your trigger behaviours, here are six strategies to use:

1 Become very intimate with what triggers you

Certain things will create strong emotional or stress responses in you. Knowing what those elements are allows you to anticipate potential triggers in advance, enabling you to prepare for them and recognising them after they’ve occurred.

2. Become very intimate with how you feel when triggered

Do you get angry? Depressed? Do you lose self-confidence? Do you feel unmotivated? Do you have revenge fantasies? Knowing how it feels when you’re triggered is critical for knowing when you’re in a triggered state.

3. Be honest with yourself about your trigger behaviours

Invariably, these are our despicable behaviours. They make us look small, insecure, mean, disrespectful, or controlling. These behaviours are hard to face, but do so compassionately because harsh self-criticism of bad behaviours only makes them worse.

4. Take a break from trigger situations

Take a step back, take some time to yourself, and remove yourself from the trigger situations. Give yourself some space to process your trigger sources, feelings, and instinctual next actions and behaviours.



5. Have a set of neutralising phrases or sentences in your back pocket

When you’re highly emotional, it’s very difficult to generate productive responses real-time. Instead, have some language you can rely on to just get you through situations without completely exploding or damaging relationships.

Saying, “I’m not sure I can have a productive conversation at the moment, so I’ll take some time to reflect on how to respond” is a good phrase.

Other examples: “I’m not comfortable where things are right now, so I’m not going to do or say anything.” “I need to think about this for a little while.” “I hear you. I’m coming from a different perspective.”

Begin your sentences with “I” when you’re upset because, if you don’t, you’ll almost always come across as an attack.

6. Defuse triggers with Emotional Freedom Techniques

There’s a way to quickly remove the emotional charges from triggered moments – thus bypassing bad trigger behaviours – by using Emotional Freedom Techniques.

“Tapping” is another term for this self-management method, and it involves applying pressure to meridian points on the body while feeling intense emotions. This technique is good for leaders experiencing anxiety or anger because it releases them quickly from their emotions, so they can address situations with greater clarity and effectiveness.

Feeling strong emotional experiences are universal, and every human has the opportunity to work through those moments in a more productive manner.


About the author

Deb Hordon, founder and CEO of Deb Hordon Leadership


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