Enhancing the Performance of an Individual Leader Through Supporting Specific Behavioral Change: Example of Managing Self (Triggers) in High Stakes Situations

Enhancing the Performance of an Individual Leader Through Supporting Specific Behavioral Change: Example of Managing Self (Triggers) in High Stakes Situations

Each leader has a unique “behavioral footprint,” with areas of strength and challenge. As leaders become more seasoned and sophisticated, it is usually the challenges that are endemic to their behavioral footprint, often in their blind spot, that interfere most with their performance. Rarely is it lack of knowledge, experience or expertise that gets in their way. Leadership development at this level is often about helping leaders “see” how they are inadvertently getting in their own way – and then learning to identify and shift their behaviors so they can get out of the way of higher performance. More often than not, these challenges to effective leadership arise in high-stakes situations, when a leader feels vulnerable or threatened. Just when the leader most needs to stay calm and act from a centered place, they are most prone to being “triggered” and reacting in unproductive ways.

Being able to maintain composure and operate at peak performance during high-stakes situations is a critical leadership competency. Yet, it is human nature to “fight, flee or freeze” during these very moments when we most need to stay calm, cool and collected. The following discussion demonstrates how leaders can overcome their predispositions to getting triggered and optimize their performance in these moments, by understanding their own patterns of behavior (seeing), understanding the role of emotion in their automatic responses (connecting), identifying, experimenting and practicing new ways of responding (doing) – all in service of evolving their authentic, core approach to leading (being).

How Triggers Work

Our behavioral footprint reflects our patterns of behavior -- how we tend to act in response to specific stimuli. These behavioral patterns become conditioned responses, as we tend to react in the same way, time after time, when faced with similar stimuli. The more often we respond to a stimulus in the same way, the more our neural pathways become grooved (as we mentioned above, “neurons that fire together wire together”). Mylon sheathing is generated, creating a neural super highway of immediate, conditioned response. 207

Some of these patterns are “productive” in that they generate the results we desire/require (e.g., pulling your hand from a hot surface), while others are less so (e.g., losing your temper). We are aware of some of these patterns (“I always procrastinate until the 11th hour, until I feel panicked and kick into high gear…”) and unaware of others. Some we can consciously control (“I am not going to take the bait…”), whereas others feel out of our control (“Uggh! Why do I keep doing that when I know it gets me into trouble?!?….”).

One of the most potent sources of development for leadership is learning how to managing self in high stakes situations. This involves becoming aware of our “triggers” and learning to manage them.

Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, provides us with some meaningful insight into what happens in our brains, physiologically, when we are triggered. The part of our brain that governs rational thought and executive function is located in the pre-frontal cortex. The part of our brain that governs emotion (the amygdala) is located near the brain stem. Usually the two work together seamlessly to help us make decisions and take action. However, when we face severe threat, the synapses fire in a way that the pre-frontal cortex is bypassed and a shorter path is taken to the more primal amygdala; we no longer have access to our rational capacities. When we are strongly triggered, it is nearly impossible for us to engage productively (i.e., in a “robust exchange of strong ideas, loosely held”), problem-solve creatively, or learn and relationship-build. Our curiosity (and ability to “see more”) shuts down and we lose the ability to see a nuanced range of options for response. We revert to our instinctual response of “fight or flight.” Also, we are prone to errors in thinking, such as: quick but sloppy logic (we go up the ladder of inference so fast we do not even realize we are doing it); strong sense of certainty (“I’m right; you’re wrong”); categorical thinking (black and white, all or nothing); and self-confirming reasoning (only noticing data that confirms our pre-existing beliefs). Emotions are necessary for us to act 208 and so are critical to our success. Furthermore, they provide us with important information, if we can access it. At the same time, we do want to avoid being so flooded with emotion that our rational mind can’t participate in our decision-making.

The stimulus that triggers us comes from the external environment. We can get triggered when there is a clash between what is happening in the external context and our internal expectations of what should be happening. 209 We can also get triggered when something we experience feels “high stakes” – we feel threatened, vulnerable, afraid. There are common themes of high stakes threats (i.e., perceived threats to our freedom, respect, authority, safety, stability, control, etc.) that trip universal fears (e.g., fear of death, failure, being unloved or unlovable, authority, change, an alien world order, radical difference, loss of identity, being side-lined, being cut off from the things and people we love, rejection, losing control, etc.). 210

The process of becoming aware of our triggers and purposefully curbing our behavior relative to them can be difficult. Our triggered behaviors can be quite deeply embedded. Why? Often our triggers travel with our core identity issues – those issues which we fundamentally associate with the core of who we are (i.e., “I am nothing, if I am not ” -- fill in the blank -- honest, smart, high-integrity, fun, etc. The things that irritate us often have roots in the past, when’s one’s worth or value was called into question and seeds of fear were planted. Many times, our trigger patterns of behavior were developed in a different time of life, when our “fight or flight” reactions served us well by protecting us physically or psychologically. While we do not always need those protections in our current context, our neuro biochemically grooved response is still aroused by stimuli that mimic the earlier threat.

Thus, triggers are both about what is happening in our context and how we think/feel about what is happening. In understanding that, we also understand that we are not purely victims of context and we have the freedom to choose how to respond. We can start to see the path to managing ourselves effectively in even the highest stakes situations.

Viktor Frankl 211 , in Man’s Search for Meaning, shares the profound insight that the essence of being human is freedom – specifically, the freedom to choose how we respond to any external stimulus. He writes, “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.” The challenge – and opportunity -- we face when we are triggered, is to “see” and take advantage of that “space” so that we can respond, instead of just reacting.

Marshall Goldsmith, leadership coach-author-speaker, describes this space, when he writes in his book Triggers: “There are three eye-blink moments – first the impulse, then the awareness, and then a choice – that comprises the crucial intervals between the trigger and our eventual behavior.

The challenge is to gain awareness and composure – to slow these moments enough to see and choose options for response, rather than being purely reactive. This skill, of slowing your response time, so you can see a broader option set from which to choose and respond, involves all four meta competencies: seeing, being, connecting, and being. 212 How do we do this?

Applying The Five Step Cycle of Change to Triggers

Let’s see how the cycles of change can be specifically applied to the example of being triggered.


Again, awareness (a function of “seeing”) truly is the first step. Often when our “hot buttons” are pushed, we have a palpable, physical and emotional responses. These physiological and emotional responses can be an excellent “early warning system.” Our bodies feel emotion before our minds register it. 213 The more aware we are of our patterns of triggers (i.e., what, who, how, when we tend to get triggered), the more easily and quickly we will recognize that we are triggered (or, ideally, about to get triggered).

Map the Territory

Each of us has patterns of behavior that are derivative of our unique life experiences. In this case, “Mapping the Territory” involves identifying these behavioral patterns to reveal aspects of our behavioral footprint. These patterns emerge as we reflect on how we tend to act in specific situations, in response to specific stimuli, and how those actions effect the results that we achieve (and fail to achieve). We can become students of our own reactions, by reflecting on the data provided in our day-to-day experience – situations in which we do not get the results we want -- by keeping track and noting:

Patterns of Behavior

For example:

Example: Undesirable Pattern of Behavior

In noting our experiences, we should be as specific as we can about:

  • What about the situation is relevant – what is the triggering stimulus?
  • What we are thinking/feeling and consequently doing that is effective or ineffective?
  • What is gap between the result we wanted and what we achieved?

We can catalyze pattern recognition by fostering curiosity about the commonalities these situations share (i.e., the person involved; the topic of conversation; the context; how we are thinking or feeling; the assumptions or attributions we make, how do we tend to act; the results do we usually achieve, etc.) For example, do we get triggered by criticism? By perceived injustice? By a specific colleague that drives us crazy or topic of conversation that is a hot button? Being aware of these patterns is part of the ground work that helps us understand when we are about to get triggered (and how to avoid it) or helps to get out of trouble once we are already triggered.

Seek Opening / Disrupt

Calm down. The challenge with being triggered is that while we are swamped by our emotions, our ability to take in information (to “see more”) is shut down. Thus, until you have calmed down and have retrieved the use of your rational capabilities, you will be reacting, not responding. There are many strategies for calming down (breathe deeply, count to ten, etc.), and each of us needs to find the ones that work for us. Regular mindfulness practices help build the neural circuitry that enables us to more easily, quickly and skillfully recognize that we are getting triggered and to purposefully choose to calm our limbic system, through our chosen strategy. 214

Identify the root cause. This requires a “subject-object shift,” – that is, engaging your Neutral Witness to try to get a different (arm’s length, neutral, depersonalized) perspective on the action. Try to see more. How is what is happening in the external context effecting you, internally? What is going on for you? What are your thoughts, emotions, physiological responses? How might you be inadvertently contributing to the results? Can you identify the core identity theme that is being triggered? (“Name it to tame it.”) Many of the things that irritate us in our current life, generally have roots in the past, when one’s worth or value was called into question or we did not feel safe and seeds of fear were planted. Often times, the very responses that are not serving us well today played a very important role in protecting us in earlier circumstances (e.g., when we were young and did not have the same breadth of options we have as adults). Sometimes, appreciating the inherent intelligence of this response, in an earlier context, can help us see a wider range of possible strategies that are available to us in our current context. Trying to reframe or understand the underlying structures in the dynamic can also help. Is there another way to look at this situation that would make it less threatening? Are there underlying patterns that may be causing the dynamic to get stuck? Is a need to control part of the problem, and if so, could it be loosened?


What are your options for response? 215 Which one will be most effective? Choose one. Try it! Remember, all this happens in a slit second. The difference between responding and reacting is the difference of micro moments. Yet, this can be enough to fundamentally shift the quality of your response and the results.


Our trigger responses tend to be patterned, automatic responses. The good and bad news is that these patterns repeat themselves, providing us ample opportunity to reflect on what works and practice that. Situations where you have been triggered or stopped yourself from getting triggered are excellent fodder for reflection and learning. What worked well? 216 What would you change, if you could have a “do over?” Practice what works! Sustained practice of these steps of gaining awareness, (re)gaining calm, reflecting so you can “see more,” choosing a response (rather than merely reacting), and acting – each time you start to sense yourself getting triggered – leads to purposeful self-management of triggers. Over time, with practice, new neural pathways can replace the old. We can literally change our brain chemistry and shift our “patterned, grooved reactions” into purposeful response, and ultimately, into new, different and more effective patterned, grooved reactions.

Thus, this example of “taming triggers / managing self in high stakes situations” illustrates how the Performance Prism, the five-step process of change and the Neutral Witness can be employed to help leadership “see more,” “do more,” “connect more,” and “be more.” By “making object” one’s own patterns of behavior, including the times we get in our own way, we “see” what we are inadvertently contributing to the very results that frustrate us. We can use our own physiological (doing) and emotional responses (connecting) to “see” opportunities to disrupt those patterns and experiment with new approaches (doing). The leader’s Neutral Witness plays an essential role in enabling the leader to see their patterns and sense these critical stimuli that suggest an opportunity for disruption of the pattern. In addition, the leader relies on the ability to maintain presence (being) to take advantage of these opportunities. With insight (seeing), commitment (connection), ability to calm oneself (being), and practice (doing), new patterns of behavior emerge. As new habits are engrained, the leader demonstrates greater core capacity (being), which sets the stage for more evolved seeing, being, and connecting. Thus, the leader is engaging in a virtuous cycle of leadership development.

© 2021 Carolyn Volpe Cunningham