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Are You Leading by Your Triggers or by Facts?

Are your emotions misleading and sabotaging you in business?

Emotions can be a powerful motivator. They help us make decisions, form habits and build relationships. But they can also mislead us when we’re trying to run our businesses.

That’s why learning to see if we are leading by our triggers is one of the biggest hurdles that leaders have to overcome. It’s in our DNA, as humans, to respond and react to threats. However, if our fears are at the forefront of our decisions, they leave little room for the facts we need to make clear, strategic decisions.

Since we are all humans, it bears noting that we all have built-in threat detection systems and are sensitive to detecting potentially dangerous patterns and behaviors. But if we have a history of growing up around volatility, emotional intensity, or even emotional neglect, our system has been trained to be far more sensitive than what we need for adult life.

Now, when danger is sensed, the brain makes its assessments and pulls the alarm in split seconds, erring on the side of an abundance of caution to keep us safe. While impressive, it also has a slight downside in that it means it's not 100% accurate.

For example, have you ever been scared out of your mind by a stick lying on the ground because, for a moment, you thought it was a deadly snake?

The other issue with our threat defense systems is us thinking that it's a complex problem-solving process that uses real-time data to predict the future for us. Unfortunately, the truth is our internal protection system is straightforward and works by looking backward at our past and making a heap of assumptions of what it thinks could happen next based on what's happened before.

So, when leaders become triggered by what our employees or peers say or do that cause our threat detections to rise, it spurs us to take actions designed to protect ourselves from the so-called threat. However, if we don't recognize that we are in a state of being triggered, we can make some decisions or conclusions that can be detrimental and even self-sabotaging.

Take this example:

Brenda* is the CEO of a small employment agency with about 20 employees. Before joining the family business, Brenda had worked for several years in an entirely different industry and had never owned or ran a company on her own. Therefore, Brenda has felt from day one that she's needed to prove herself to the more experienced staff.

Brenda’s kryptonite is "ego," She believes that people think they can do her job better. She often categorizes her conflicts with her team with statements like, “They have a big head” or “I know he thinks he can do my job.” This belief has set up unnecessary friction at times between her and her team.

On the other hand, Brenda says she wants to have people more intelligent than her in the organization's positions, but it's evident that her low sense of competency makes it hard for her to lead this kind of team. And now, with the job market becoming more challenging, her firm's bottom line is shrinking, and Brenda is leading even more so with her insecurities.

For one, instead of letting her team do their jobs, Brenda is now moved into micro-managing mode, inserting herself into the work and taking over several projects.

Also, instead of trusting her experienced team's suggestions, she's paying outside experts to give her the same answers. Not only is this demoralizing, but the grumbles about Brenda wasting precious company money are beginning as well.

In the end, Brenda doesn't see it but leading by her triggers is self-sabotaging, and in turn, her greatest fear is coming true: her team is losing confidence in her as a leader.

This situation is a double-bind for leaders like Brenda. That is because leaders who have a core open wound around their competency and their ability to lead also struggle with becoming self-aware of this wound. In turn, this low self-esteem makes it even hard for them to be vulnerable enough to do the work to make fundamental changes in their belief systems because it requires an admission of weakness or blindspots.

But if Brenda is willing to try, what can she do? First, she needs to recognize that she's now fighting a war on two fronts: Inside herself and with her team. And to regain some control and repair trust, she needs to gain some awareness over her inner battle.


Step one for Brenda is learning how to become aware of when she's triggered. How is this done?

It's easy – you feel it in your body. Being triggered is a biological response. A cascade of hormones, including adrenaline, are released instantly and flood our bloodstream. These chemicals supply your muscles with the energy and resources to do something about your current situation. The fight-or-flight system feels different to different people. Some people feel a wobble in the gut or tightness in the chest, while others begin to feel flush. Most people, however, will all feel an instant rapid increase in their heart rate, which is a pretty clear signal the alarm is pulled.

Once Brenda feels the rush, she needs to learn to hit pause and not do what her brain tells her to do next. Admittedly, this is tricky because it's unnatural to not follow through on our fight-or-flight mode, and resisting it feels wrong. However, taking the trauma-informed leadership perspective here, we have to recognize that this protection system has many alarms programmed into it that, while relevant during a challenging childhood, are out of place in our adult world.

Step three is to get curious about what is happening, what was said, and what she felt at the moment. Brenda doesn't need to do a deep dive into "whys." She needs to practice being mindful and aware of the trigger and not judge herself for being triggered. She can practice saying to herself, "Huh, that's funny. I wonder where that is coming from?" Then, she needs to put a pin in it to explore later, after her meeting or when she finishes reading her email.

When we are aware that we are triggered, we change the nature of the trigger itself and the outcomes. It's no longer an auto-pilot function, doing its work unsupervised. Instead, we caught it in the act, red-handed, and now can do something about it.

The final step is to do whatever is necessary for Brenda to reregulate back to the baseline to think more clearly and logically about what to do next or how to respond. For me, it's taking a big breath in to help lower my heart rate and to put air back into my chest since my triggered state is for my chest to feel instantly tight.


As for what Brenda can do with her team, once she becomes aware that she is leading with her triggers, she should open up with her team by being vulnerable. She will need to build and earn their trust back, which can only happen when she changes her behavior. Apologies are nice, but we all have learned that actions speak louder than words.

To help, Brenda can consider an executive coach who can provide cognitive-behavioral techniques and strategies to make shifts in behaviors and reframing beliefs about herself.

But if the triggering events are too often or disruptive, all leaders should consider working through some of the underlying traumas at the root of the open wound that keeps getting exposed at work. Leaders should do this with licensed and qualified mental health professionals.


Leading with triggers can be a challenge for many leaders. While Brenda is doing her best, learning to recognize, resist, and repair when her triggers fire off, will be critical to her success as a leader. If you're struggling with your own triggers or are looking for ways to improve trust in your team, consider working on some of the underlying traumas that may have set them off in the first place and give yourself some grace. We're only human, after all.

*The names and identifying details of organizations have been changed to protect their privacy.


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