Oct. 31, 2022

What are your Leadership Triggers? (Challenge #39)

What are your Leadership Triggers? (Challenge #39)

In light of the positive feedback received from episode 37, where we talked about why you need to tell your team members the reason for setting a meeting with them rather than leaving them in suspense, our host Sarah Clark thought to herself, what are some other emotional triggers leaders have? More importantly, how can leaders identify and manage these triggers?

Although this list isn’t extensive, Sarah found three common emotional triggers found in the workplace that are explained in today’s episode.

Identifying these three common triggers is an essential first step to removing the toxicity from the workplace and to allow you to be the effective leader you know you are. Sometimes these emotional triggers can be in our blindspots, so understanding how to find them is half the battle.

Tune in today to learn how to identify common emotional triggers that may be going on in your workplace so you can elevate your leadership by removing them! 

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This episode was produced by Podcast Boutique .


I write and record these episodes about 2-3 weeks before they go out to the world, depending on how organized I am. So I’m typing this right after having released episode 37, which as you may recall was all about telling your team members why you need to meet with them about something rather than leaving them in suspense. My gut and my own experience told me it was a common emotional trigger. That gut instinct was verified by both the download rate on the episode AND the passionate responses I received on my linkedin page and the kind leadership challenge facebook community. And that got me thinking—what are some other common emotional triggers leaders have, and how can we identify and manage our triggers so they don’t skew our judgment?


Welcome to the Kind Leadership Challenge! I’m Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Guild. 

My PhD in higher ed Leadership, my experience advising educational and library leaders all over the world, and a career working in academic libraries from the front desk to the Dean’s office taught me how any leader in any situation can transform their organization so they can make their communities more educated and informed places to live, work, and thrive. 

Kind Leaders know how to make the tough decisions without becoming jerks. We grow our organizations’ impact without burning anyone out. And we’ve learned that when we stop controlling and start collaborating, the impossible becomes effortless. It all sounds pretty simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So if you’re up for a challenge, stick around for the next 10 minutes as I teach you to part with perfection so your organization can build a better world. 


After my little brainwave, I spent some time brainstorming common emotional triggers that come up in the workplace. And as I did so, three common sources emerged from the list. There are probably others I could discover if I blew the dust off my PhD and ran some focus groups or something, but this is a good enough start for our purposes today.

First, I thought of baggage from previous working relationships. Anyone who follows the Ask a Manager blog knows that workplace toxicity can be just as crazy as any dysfunctional romantic relationship, and frankly just as prone to toxicity or even abuse. And the damage doesn’t magically vanish when the toxic dynamic ends. Let’s say you once had a boss who got defensive and freaked out any time someone questioned their ideas or decisions. How willing would you be to tell your next leader that they were going down the wrong path, even if they said they wanted to hear your concerns and feedback?

A second common form of emotional workplace comes from our previous failures. I think this can be a particularly insidious kind of trigger, because the best leaders have become good at their jobs because they have the strength to admit and learn from their mistakes. However, I know from experience that this can be taken too far. Being the perfectionistic control freak long-time listeners know I am, I have a tendency to “over-learn” from my mistakes, and skew too far in the other direction before settling into a happy medium. I haven’t figured out a way to completely avoid that dynamic, but I seem to have learned how to keep the pendulum from swinging quite as wildly after I screw up. 

And paradoxically, a third emotional trigger can spring from one’s previous successes. When you’ve gotten very good at using a hammer, everything can start looking like a nail after a certain point. Also, success breeds complacency. Right now in the US, there’s growing worry about a resurgence of Polio, a disease that was thought eradicated in America decades ago. Because the battle had been won, emphasis shifted to getting folks vaccinated in other nations, and lawmakers in places where the virus was seemingly extinct took for granted that the job was done, and simply focused on the tried and true strategy of vaccinating children rather than educating people WHY they and their children needed to be vaccinated, as lived experience of Polio was slowly disappearing from living memory. As the fear of polio waned and the confusion and misinformation over vaccination grew, it was only a matter of time till Polio popped up once again in the United States.

So, emotional triggers can keep us from thinking as clearly and kindly as we can in the workplace. And we’ve discussed three common sources of those triggers. So what do we do to unpack our emotional baggage, so that we can manage our blind spots instead of allowing them to manage us? Well, first off, sunlight is the best disinfectant. If you find yourself feeling strongly and perhaps not rationally about a situation, go talk to a trusted advisor. I have a few people in my life who I trust to have my best interests at hard, but who I also know will have more objectivity and distance about whatever I’m dealing with. Emotional triggers can make us blind to the kinds of issues that are clear to anyone else. SO take advantage of their perspective.

Second, once you’ve figured our you’ve been emotionally triggered by something in your workplace, it’s time to process those emotions! Feel what you’re feeling, Forgive those involved (yourself included), Figure out what you need in order to Trust that history won’t repeat, and nurture yourself and others involved to grow into something better. I go more into my system for emotional processing in episode 20, if you want to learn more.

Finally, I think we all need to accept that although we can manage and mitigate our emotional triggers to varying degrees, we can never make them disappear completely. All of us who have lived enough to become leaders have collected our share of major and minor traumas that influence our lives for better and worse. I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t magically erase those experiences from your life, and you probably shouldn’t try. But just because you’ve dealt with a sabotaging teammate or a surprise firing or simply a long line of successes as an individual contributor that set you up to be blindsided when you became a manager, that doesn’t mean you can’t begin telling a healthier story about those facts about your past. And if you can use that story to steer yourself towards a happier healthier ending, then so much the better.  

So here’s your challenge—make a list of the past workplace relationships, failures, and successes that trigger big emotions for you. what emotions does It trigger? What can you do to process them? And are there more truthful and helpful stories you can tell about those facts of your past? If you’d like, feel free to share that stuff in the kind leadership challenge facebook community, or you can always send me an email. Sarah@kindleadershipguild.com


Thanks for listening and for taking action to become a kinder leader. If you found this week’s episode insightful, give the show a rating or review—or even better, share this episode with your fellow leaders!  Never doubt that day by day, you’re building a better world, even if you can't see it yet. So until next time, stay kind now.  

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