How to free the great leader inside you

Identify your triggers to help you recognize talent in your organization

Fear that underlies bias about others can show up in ways we might not expect. It can show up in the individual who wants to succeed but holds themselves back because of fear, and it can show up in the leader who cannot see the talent that is right before them because there is too much focus on what/who is comfortable. The sense of discomfort or difficulty and our emotional reaction to that discomfort is the trigger process we are looking for.

Triggers show up in our emotional reactions. They do not always look like fear, though I believe a kind of subtle fear is at the root of each one of our triggers. If we have done some work on our unconscious biases, it may be helpful to review what we’ve discovered. Protecting ourselves from fearful situations is only natural.

Our built-in desire for safety comes from a long ago evolutionary time when human beings had to be defended and reactive against the real dangers to their physical existence. There was no time to ponder. For survival, the reactions needed to occur instantaneously without lengthy thought. 

However, these days our fight or flight instinct is overused and overworked and not always in proportion to its natural, instinctual purpose to protect us from truly harmful situations. We do experience—or our brains interpret experiences as—threats to our sense of well-being, to our sense of self, to our sense of success.

Whether perceived or real, this “threat” brings on the same reactions. To become more thoughtful leaders, we need to grow in awareness of the difference between real bodily harm and perceived personal threats of a less existential kind.

Triggers are important to be aware of because triggers and fears become habits. The more we allow them to operate below our full conscious awareness, the less power we have to change them or to create a different outcome based on more beneficial insights and habits. Just as with our unconscious biases, triggers can cause us to miss valuable opportunities.

If we are triggered to react emotionally to our colleagues and team members, we may overlook the ways we can support each other’s success. We have a choice to proceed differently, but often don’t recognize it. Our realities will become (or remain) governed by these triggers. Even if you do not know what it is, others could interpret the message as unwelcoming and implying disinterest. 

For instance, biases can be either a bias for or a bias against something or someone. Reactions to a bias can manifest as tension, anxiety, frustration, uncertainty and even anger. These body sensations are connected to what our mind is thinking or perceiving even when we are not conscious of those thoughts. We just feel the need to protect or defend. If you recognize an emotional reaction to someone or to their opinion, notice what body language is taking place in you.

You may want to roll your eyes, disengage or turn away. It could be that you are aware of the reaction and prefer to put on a face that is bland, sort of a poker face. While a poker face may seem like a neutral expression, it is a mask to cover up what is really going on. Question if you have intolerance, dislike or bias about the other person’s perspective or way of being.

This is not inclusion. This is exclusion of different perspectives. Being open to listening to other perspectives does not mean that you have to agree. How much can it hurt to be open to really listening? How much might it help?

I am a firm believer that our thoughts create our realities. We can change our reality by focusing on our thoughts and making changes in them that can produce a more productive outcome. If you approach fears and triggers with a mindset of curiosity, you will be better able to set judgment aside and discover new possibilities. Remember to proceed with self-kindness and acceptance, as you create a dialog with your unconscious biases. Self-judgment is another emotional reaction that can be triggered by fear of the unknown.

Judgment, in this context, is not useful to us. Non-judgment is a key piece because it is a state of being that provides us the opportunity to consciously observe situations. Have a curious mindset about where the judgment of self or others comes from. We will always have more time for discernment when it is necessary. But for now, we are on a fact-finding mission: what triggers influence our decision-making?

A powerful partner in the way our thoughts create our realities is language. Begin to listen to language—yours and the language of others. Notice if you use words like “hate,” “don’t like,” “crazy busy,” etc. My clients are amazed at how their energy and perspective shifts when they recognize language that has a negative tone. Our words help create our reality and empowering words have an amazing impact on that reality. You can generate positive changes in yourself and in others simply by paying attention to the words you use.

Words can trigger negativity. It’s likely you have had the experience of reacting emotionally to what someone else has said. What words trigger your hot buttons? What do others say and do that trip your emotional trigger? In order to grow in conscious awareness, we have to know what our triggers are and be aware of what happens to us when a trigger occurs. The next time one of your triggers is tripped, explore the following questions:

• What is happening to my energy?
• Where is my focus?
• What can I do to get back on track, get grounded or centered?
• What motivates me and what de-motivates me?

For instance, if you get off track on a goal or action because something did not go quite the way you anticipated it would; do you give up, beat yourself up, complain about the situation or the others involved, and create a vicious cycle that keeps you running on a hamster wheel? Our reaction to triggers happens instantaneously.

As you work more deeply on your awareness about triggers and their effects, remember to take a breath and slow down. By slowing down and learning about the trigger and your defensive emotional reaction, you have a better chance of ending these types of internal struggles.  You benefit, and so do those you lead. 

Try the following exercise to help identify your triggers: 

1. Identify a challenge you see and experience in your world.
2. What are the perspectives that are learned and the ones that are habitual? List these.
3. List alternative perspectives to approach the perceived challenge. Once you examine other perspectives, what might be another way of looking at the challenge or situation?

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