Understanding Emotional Triggers


Emotional Triggers (1)

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else: you are the one who gets burned.” — Buddha

Great leaders very often have high EQ as a key part of leading people is understanding how they think and feel and having the capacity to use this knowledge to achieve goals. Managers who can do this well nearly always understand how emotions are formed and what triggers them. They also understand how they relate alongside reason. In general it is important for managers to understand that whereas reason might be the explanation applied to a decision, it invariable was the emotion which actually triggered making the decision, at least in the first stages, which is why when resolving conflict, great leaders address the emotional source of problems as well as the logical reasoning given.

We make decisions because of our emotions and then justify them afterwards with our reasoning.

Emotion versus reason.png

The emotion versus reason analysis is applicable to all types of decisions, be those of purchasing a new car or those behind an action that leads to or prevents conflict. Indeed in sales appealing to the emotional trigger to sell a product has long been established as a key sales strategy, you sell the reason someone wants the car not what the car does. In man-management things are similar as a great leader will have the capacity to appeal to the emotions of their staff, both on the global team level and on the personal. For example a leader who can make a motivational speech that inspires their staff to push themselves harder to finish a project on time will only succeed if they trigger the emotions in the team that make them give a dam, emotions that they know how to trigger. Likewise a leader who manages to inspire an individual to greater levels of personal insight and development will have triggered that staff member’s emotional desire and commitment to do so, their WIIFM reasoning.

Great leaders have the capacity to trigger individual’s emotions.


Understanding how emotions can be triggered and used to create loyalty and a positive work attitude is a fantastic skill for a leader. The first thing to start with is understanding how emotions are normally formed. In general, as we can see above, it is accepted that the first stage is “sensed” or “perceived”, for example we feel something in us change, then afterwards we “name” the “feeling” with an understood emotion, i.e. “annoyance”. Afterwards we attribute that emotion to a cause i.e. the “trigger”, for example your boss giving you feedback you believe unfair. Next we evaluate how we feel about that emotion i.e. “is it in our interest to be annoyed?” and then finally we act upon it. How we “act upon it” of course can have two broad outcomes, one positive and controlled and the other negative and out of control. An inside-out accountable attitude is often key to triggering a positive response to an negative emotion.

We normally do have a choice about how to act when we feel an emotion.

In our example about annoyance, if we manage to control our emotion of annoyance and force ourselves to show patience and the person giving the feedback also senses our negative emotion forming and responds by modifying their approach, it is possible a negative emotion of “annoyance” could be slowly changed into one of “interest” an emotion more likely to be productive for both parties. However the opposite negative response is equally possible if both sides don’t respond to the “trigger”, for example you don’t control your annoyance and your boss doesn’t modify their approach then likely your passive negative emotion of annoyance is going to change into a more negative active one of anger, anger as the saying goes triggers an angry response back.

A negative emotion undealt with will naturally trigger a negative response back.

What is important as a leader is the following. Firstly it is essential that your understand behind almost every poor decision is a negative emotion, bad calls aren’t just bad logic they are also often a negative emotional response to some trigger. Secondly that there are scales of negative emotions 591px-Plutchik-wheel.svg.pngi.e referring to the emotion chart to the left, you can see in the red part that annoyance leads to anger and anger to rage. Leaders who don’t understand, or care about, the progression of these levels are the ones who create rather than prevent conflict. Thirdly it is important to recognize that 1st level negative emotions, like annoyance, can be turned into 1st level positive emotions, like interest, if things are dealt with right. Indeed in negative emotions is often the opportunity to develop and learn as after each strong emotion is expressed and released, people are often the most open to hearing new feedback. Fourthly it is essential to recognize that emotions can be both unintentionally and deliberately triggered. Of course good leaders will do their best to avoid triggering negative emotions, especially avoiding allowing level 1 ones like annoyance becoming more serious level 2s like anger. However likewise a great leader knows how to trigger positive emotions in people and how to guide level 1s to become more influential level 2s or 3s. For example a manager is by nature “accepted” at first in their leadership position but by treating people fairly and correctly (for the work context) they become “trusted” and when they are there they are a few positive examples of good leadership away from being admired (admiration) and of course, correctly applied, this admiration will trigger positive responses of wanting to follow the manager and achieve the goals they have set out.

Great managers deliberately trigger positive emotions in their team.

A great manager therefore is someone who understands how emotions develop and how they can be triggered. They avoid where possible triggering negative emotions and rather instead learn how to make the most of triggering positive ones. A leader who is praised with positive adjectives like fair, inspiring and creative is inevitably tapping into their team’s positive emotions successfully. Once the example is set from above, it is easier for the team to follow and aim in their own teamwork to trigger positive responses in colleagues, over just looking after their own needs. Emotions are vitally important to understand but likewise it is important to see emotions as directions, not directives. No emotion causes a guaranteed response, it does make you turn towards a direction but you still have the power to walk away and choose a more positive route. Great leaders don’t speak about set emotions but rather see them open to change. They “feel angry” over fixing it as “i am angry”, as “feelings” can change but being something never does.

Great leaders know emotions are directions not directives.


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