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  • Dr. Julie Olsen

Improve Your Leadership Effectiveness by Identifying Your Emotional Triggers



What makes someone great at leadership? Harvard research suggests one aspect is emotional intelligence. According to Daniel Goleman, the first element of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, which includes understanding your feelings and why they happen, as well as the triggers that get in the way of success. We all have emotional triggers. Some situations and people seem to set us off without warning. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have emotional triggers and at times, my emotional responses to them are hard to manage. Your trigger might be someone that interrupts you, while someone else is bothered by clutter. We each have a unique set of emotional buttons.


Unfortunately, our emotions often trigger a quick unplanned reaction. Someone presses our “button” and a negative emotional response springs into action immediately.


Learn to disconnect your emotional triggers and enhance your effectiveness with these strategies:


Observe yourself. Take time to observe your behavior and identify your emotional triggers. While this may seem simple, it can be reasonably hard since we often overlook our triggers, especially when we are busy at work. We analyze our emotions based on our perspective and we justify our actions as rational and reasonable, but that might not be the case.

  1. Consider a few times recently when you have been upset. What triggered that reaction? What was said? What was the situation? Who was there? Were you dealing with tight deadlines? Rapidly changing expectations? Look for patterns and determine if there are consistent situations or people that prompted your emotional response.

  2. Pay attention to your emotional reactions over the next month. Consider keeping an emotional journal. Notice when your emotions take a sharp turn and determine the cause.

Ask for help. We don’t always see ourselves as others do. Ask a few family members and friends to give their opinion regarding your emotional triggers. You might be surprised by the reactions you receive. Make a list of your emotional buttons. By writing out your emotional buttons, you actually see your triggers and it is easier to determine patterns and situations that may initiate emotional responses. Capture as many triggers as you can.


● Do you see a pattern? For example, you might get frustrated with people that are always late for meetings. Or you may feel betrayed when someone doesn’t share important information with you. Being cut off in traffic may impact your mood or being interrupted may bring out a different set of emotions. Are the patterns related to a value you may hold dear? Do the situations fall under a lack of respect? Are they related to trust?


Identify how those emotional triggers are hurting you. Go through each emotional trigger and think about the harm it is causing you. It might be hurting your chances for a promotion. It could be damaging your relationships with others on the team or with your peers. Consider the cause. Why do these things trigger you? Your emotional buttons aren’t the same as someone else’s. Why do these particular things get such an emotional rise from you? Why does something bother you but not others? Identify a more effective response. Knowing your triggers and your typical reaction, how can you change that reaction to a more effective response? Consider your emotional buttons and determine an alternative response that will be more appropriate and that will address the situation more effectively. Monitor yourself. Give your new and improved responses a try. When you notice yourself being triggered, be thoughtful enough to use your new response. See how it goes. It might take a while to learn to be present enough to remember your intention and new response.

Be patient. It’s very challenging to be thoughtful and logical during a time of high emotion. Your brain doesn’t function in the same way when it’s emotionally aroused. However, with sufficient practice, your new responses will become automatic.


Emotional triggers aren’t universal. We form them ourselves based on our experiences and our unique perceptions of these experiences and they can be an obstacle to advancing your life, your career, and your relationships. They can even pose a big challenge to your emotional and physical health.


Do your best to minimize the effect your emotional triggers have on your life and you willbe a more effective leader and enjoy less stress while enhancing the relationships with those around you.


For more information on Emotional Intelligence, check out this eBook 10 Ways to Increase Your Emotional Intelligence.