What triggers you as a leader and how can you positively embrace it?

Leadership Blog  |  4 minute read

Bella Blazewicz

Written by Bella Blazewicz

What triggers you as a leader and how can you positively embrace it?

There’s no denying the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership and management. As the emphasis placed on coaching, growth and looking after people’s wellbeing increases, the ability to perceive your own emotions and the emotions of others is paramount.

Harnessing your emotional intelligence and empathy for others can seriously raise your potential as a leader – it can improve decision-making, lead to clearer communication, and help to manage stressful situations and relationships. But before you can start developing empathy for others, you need to start closer to home: understanding your own emotions and triggers.

Emotions are data

The bottom line with emotional intelligence is that emotions are information. That might sound a little cold, but it’s a fact of how we navigate the world. Emotions like curiosity, happiness and desire motivate us towards things, for example, while fear, disgust or anxiety protect us from potential dangers. 

Our emotions are inherently valuable to us because of that. They’re like signposts using our reactions to guide us through complex situations – but only if we know what to look for. If we’re not aware of what our gut is telling us, we put ourselves at risk of making the wrong call or being paralysed with indecision.

Empathy is held as one of the pillars of leadership, but the path to developing empathy starts with yourself, not others. You first have to build awareness of your own emotions by identifying and acknowledging them – a process called emotional literacy.

That self-awareness is key to understanding how your emotions affect your behaviours and how those behaviours in turn shape your leadership style. When you have a firm grasp on the emotional context behind your own actions, it becomes much easier to understand the emotions of others and develop that crucial empathy.


Get familiar with your own triggers

Once you’re more aware of your emotions, you can start to understand your triggers too. Triggers are emotional reactions to situations and we all have them – they’re what happens when our amygdala gets overwhelmed or “hijacked” by moments of high stress.

We don’t learn what triggers us just for our own curiosity or peace of mind. Like emotions, triggers are also valuable information and give us insight into what occurs as a problem for us. This insight is vital for leaders to make sure they call out breakdowns when they see them rather than letting them get swept under the rug.

For example, imagine that being late is a trigger for you. If you’re late into the office, or if you’ve overshot a deadline, it’s all too easy to assume the negative emotional reaction you have is shared by everyone else in that situation. When a direct report is then late themselves, you might not want to call out that breakdown for fear of triggering the reaction you assume they’d have.

The breakdown then becomes a problem you try to manage again and again, rather than a challenge to overcome once. To avoid this, leaders need to learn how to embrace and work with their triggers, as well as understand that what triggers us might not be the same for everyone else.


Can emotional intelligence be learned?

It’s important to remember that while triggers are an emotional reaction, you do have agency over how you decide to respond to them. Changing your reactions is known as emotional regulation and James Gross, a Stanford professor who specialises in the topic, sets out four simple stages for doing this:


  1. Reinterpret the situation to remove the threat or assume positive intent.
  2. Normalise your feelings and acknowledge that your emotional response is normal.
  3. Reorder the value you’re putting on the situation.
  4. Reposition yourself to see things from a point of view other than your own.

Emotional regulation isn’t something you can achieve overnight. Cultivating self-awareness is where it all begins, so you can take your first step by naming and acknowledging your own emotions. Emotional intelligence sits in the limbic system of the brain, and like any part of the brain, it’s constantly learning and developing each time it’s used.

Building self-awareness takes time and can be challenging, but knowing where your triggers are and how to respond to them will be like firing the starting gun for your potential growth as a leader.


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Published 15/03/2023

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