Leaders Can Be ‘Triggered’ Too

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Executive coach and author Jody Michael on the dangers to C-Suite emotional health today—and how to handle them.

HR leaders should help their employees—and themselves—find ways to overcome emotional triggers at work not only for the well-being of everyone, but also for the organization’s bottom line.

So says Jody Michael, executive coach and author of the book Leading Lightly: Lower Your Stress, Think with Clarity, and Lead with Ease. She spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about employee and leadership well-being, why it’s critical today and her step-by-step ways to achieve it.

What does it mean to lead lightly? And why should leaders develop this skill?

Leading lightly means no matter what happens during your day, you don’t get triggered. You have the capacity to approach everything with enduring ease and clarity. You’re Teflon. It’s a state of being that naturally arises when you’ve learned to let go of internal noise and emotional clutter.

Leading lightly comes about from a transformational process that I call MindMastery. It’s a way of discovering, and then shedding, the hidden beliefs, assumptions and perspectives that create your perceptual lens and your brain’s “underlying operating system.” 

It’s not about adding anything new. It’s about understanding how your own unconscious thoughts cause you to react in habitual ways that create unnecessary pain, stress and suffering. 

And by the way, leading lightly is not a Pollyanna “positive attitude”—nor is it avoidance or rose-colored glasses. Issues are still issues. But they don’t get the best of you. Rather, you’re able to be your best self throughout your day, every day.

The crux of this is about mental fitness. How do you define mental fitness? And why is it critical to leadership?

Think about physical fitness: the more fit you are, the better you handle physical challenges. You perform better with less exertion—and recover much faster.

Mental fitness applies to emotional challenges. Your personal “triggers.” Situations in work and life when you get reactive, anxious, defensive, overwhelmed—or even numbed out. 

When you’re mentally fit, you’ve developed five key “muscles”—three skills plus two choices—that keep you out of fight or flight. You’ve actually changed your brain’s neural pathways, through daily practice to unlearn old patterns and create your new norm. 

CHROs should care about mental fitness for financial reasons, if no other. Leaders who lack mental fitness pervasively act from emotionally triggered states. These individuals cumulatively cost their organizations millions of dollars every year. 

Hidden costs occur from:

High turnover and loss of human capital as the best achievers opt out

Legal liabilities and costs arising from impulsive behaviors

Wasted time and energy as people strategize workarounds 

Team disengagement, driven by leaders who berate, reprimand or must be “right”

Costly bottlenecks as leaders drag their feet on making decisions 

Low morale and impaired productivity in a pervasive “watch-your-back” culture 

Machiavellian power moves driven by a leader’s distrust or self-interest 

Leaders without mental fitness create ongoing interpersonal and institutional friction. In turn, that friction drives tremendous misalignment and inefficiencies. Organizations then fail to move forward or achieve consistently strong performance.

After more than two years of living and leading through a pandemic, it often feels that survival mode has become our new normal. What are some warning signs that you’re leading from a place of stress and anxiety? And is this something leaders can actually change?

The warning signs are both internal—thoughts and emotions—and external—impact on others. 

Internally, a leader may routinely feel anxious, overwhelmed, numb, frustrated, irritated, angry, panicked or distrustful. They may frequently think, “I can’t do all of this” or “I’m so exhausted” or “I’m so stressed out” or “I can’t deal with this/them.” Any of these are warning signs when prolonged over time. 

External impacts can be severe, as mentioned above. People may find the leader to be chronically short-tempered or defensive; easily overwhelmed; unable to make clear decisions; inaccessible or refusing to address critical issues. Execution invariably suffers.

Can leaders change? Absolutely. I’ve seen it again and again through my 25-plus years of executive coaching. The starting point is always self-awareness—painful as that may be—followed by personal accountability. Leaders have to become aware of their inner feelings and the outer impacts. 

And they must completely own all of their thoughts, moods and behaviors. They’ve got to stop blaming others or the difficult times we’re all in. 

I always know a leader has turned a key point in mental fitness when they really grasp that the quality of their daily experience is driven by their mindset—and their mindset is always within their control.

Tell me about your six-step process to optimize your leadership performance.

Optimized leadership means you perform at full capacity—your best cognitive and emotional self—in moments of pressure. If you’re emotionally triggered, you lose up to 40 IQ points of your cognitive capacity.

Just like learning a sport or musical instrument, you’ll first need to practice each individual “muscle” of mental fitness. Then, you’ll use them together in a six-part sequence to rapidly shift out of a triggered state.

First, you stabilize yourself with “ABC.” You (A) assess your thoughts and emotions, (B) perform deep “belly breathing” and (C) choose to assume full accountability for your thoughts and mood. Now you’ve begun to calm your nervous system.

Then you apply the “SEE” steps to shift your mood. You self-assess again, to (S) spot your current lens. What underlying perspective is driving your current emotional state? Then, you (E) explore alternative perspectives—by this time in your journey, you’ve got a list to consider. 

Last, you (E) elect to hold one of these alternative “helpful” perspectives. You feel a palpable shift in your body and mind as you return to your full capacity. 

With practice, the ABC-SEE steps rapidly restore your ability to think rationally and act with control—and that’s your optimal performance state. 

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