On the Nature of Triggers
The High Stakes of Ignoring Complexity
How do we rise together? A good place to start is by identifying the triggers that can hold us back from being our best selves at work, especially with colleagues we perceive as different from ourselves. And then by practicing inclusive habits.
But it starts with triggers.
For decades, I’ve watched specific situations trigger negative perceptions and reactions between men and women at work. These situations are so routine that they feel to me like scenes from a play I’ve sat through too many times. They’re clichés. But that doesn’t make them any less real.
A woman shares an idea during a meeting to which there is little reaction. 15 minutes later, when a male colleague makes the same point, he is quickly recognized. “Great idea! Can you tell us how that would work?”
The woman is irritated at not being credited with an idea she has put forth, yet is reluctant to stir the pot by pointing it out. She doesn’t want to sound petty, aggrieved or, God forbid, come off as a victim. And there’s no sense in making an enemy of the man who co-opted her idea. She tries to ignore her resentment, telling herself to move on. After all, the idea is what really matters, not who gets the credit.
But out in the hall, after the meeting, she grabs a female colleague and unloads. “Can you believe how everyone responded as if my suggestion was his idea? I’ve seen the same thing happen to you. The guys here are just incapable of hearing anything a woman has to say!”
A man tells his junior colleague, a woman, that he’d like to recommend her for a position that was just posted internally. He thinks she’d be perfect for the job. He also likes building relationships that boost others while increasing the power of his own network, establishing connections that may prove useful in the future. The company has been encouraging men to more actively engage women as allies, so this seems like a good opportunity to score some points.
But his junior colleague hesitates, saying she needs time to think about it. He wonders what there is to think about but says fine. Then a few days later, she stops by his office to tell him that while she appreciates his offer, she doesn’t feel ready for the new position. “ I don’t have all the skills listed in the posting,” she says. “Plus I’ve still got things to learn in the job I’m in.”
He’s heard her underplay her abilities in the past and views her line about needing to master all the skills before she even applies for the new job as a lame excuse. He wonders if she’s one of those women who lack ambition. Just last month, another female colleague turned down a similar promotion. What’s up with that? The company’s trying to push women forward and women seem to be pushing back.
Disappointed, he decides to write his colleague off.
These are stock scenarios. They happen all the time. What they have in common is that they usually trigger stock responses. Stock responses are rooted in observations and experiences that shape our expectations without our even being aware of it. We interpret what is happening now through the lens of what we’ve observed (or think we’ve observed) in the past. Or through our beliefs about how other people–– or the world–– “should” be.
This is normal. It’s how we as humans operate. Stock responses are our “go-to” responses because they offer handy mental shortcuts for dealing with circumstances that routinely crop up. They feel easy because they’re familiar and they feel satisfying because they confirm what we’re already primed to believe. But stock responses undermine our ability to address the complexity underlying the routine situations that can trigger us at any moment. By depriving us of intention and choice, they put us on autopilot. And since no one has ever achieved greatness or made a significant breakthrough on autopilot, triggers are something we need a strategy for handling if we want to do great work.
My colleague Marshall Goldsmith literally wrote the book on triggers: incidents that provoke us, stir emotion and cause us to respond in ways that rarely serve our interests and may even inflame the situation. Marshall identifies a trigger as any stimulus or situation that shapes our thoughts, words or actions. He notes that triggers are environmental. That is, they lie outside ourselves.
Because of this, we can’t control the events that trigger us. But we can control how we respond. If we don’t, we essentially cede power to our environment and allow ourselves to be ambushed by circumstances and dominated by stock responses. We inhibit our ability to change and grow.
In my experience, triggers are the prime reason that men and women end up retreating into gender silos, narrowing their experience and depriving themselves of useful connections. That’s what happened when the woman in the first example enlisted her friend to commiserate after her idea had been credited to her male colleague. Sharing her resentment with a female colleague may have temporarily relieved the emotional distress of being disregarded. But venting her feelings only reinforced the story she was telling herself to explain what had happened (“men just can’t listen to women”). This, in turn, increases the likelihood of her remaining stuck in a negative groove.
It is the stories we tell ourselves when we feel triggered that keep us dug in and limit our ability to frame an effective response. In the coming weeks, I will explore further how such dynamics play out in the workplace and how we can be on guard against behaviors that blind us to the complexity of human conduct all around us.