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Marshall Goldsmith on TRIGGERS - How to Deal with them and Heal them

emotional intelligence executive coaching leadership development Dec 18, 2015

Marshall Goldsmith, world-class global Executive Coach, has come up a few times lately so I decided to read his latest book TRIGGERS. He defines a trigger as: “any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions” mostly focusing on how to deal with unpleasant triggers that cause us to react and behave badly.

He says:

“We make plans, set goals, and stake our happiness on achieving these goals. But our environment constantly intervenes.”

My first response to this is that this reflects the Achiever’s mindset. If you’ve read my posts before you’ll appreciate the stages in leadership development fromConformist to Specialist, to Achiever, Catalyst and onto Strategist. [Check out this post to find out more.]

These are the 5 levels of leadership predominantly found in organizations – although less than 10% are Strategists, visionary leaders who are able bring about and sustain the type of fundamental transformational change we need in the world today to create a healthier society and a mutually beneficial economy.

Achievers vs Strategists

An Achiever focuses on success and happiness – although both remain remorselessly out of reach due to their total preoccupation for “more” reflected in their inexorable busy-ness. This is in contrast to theCatalyst/Strategist progressive mindsets where personal authenticity, making a morally ethical contribution and the search for genuine fulfillment override busy-ness and the relentless pursuit of success and happiness as if it was to be found outside themselves.

The Achiever’s outlook follows the linear path of

  1. Set a goal
  2. Make a plan
  3. Do it
  4. Achieve the desired results

The trouble is, as Marshall Goldsmith points out, things that happen in our environment get in the way of implementing the plan effectively. Generally relationship dynamics of one sort or another annoy us, anger us, diminish us or frustrate us. His solution is to become much more vigilant of our behaviour and use a daily series of active questions which focus on how much effort we’re making to do our very best in order to become a better person.

The key questions that he suggests we check in with daily are:

  1. Did I do my best to set clear goals?

  2. Did I do my best to make progress toward my goals?
  3. Did I do my best to find meaning?
  4. Did I do my best to be happy?
  5. Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
  6. Did I do my best to be fully engaged?

The Feedback Loop

These questions are extremely valuable to become a high Achiever, as are a set of personal values to tune into to become a Catalyst, or a set of sincere intentions we have set to arrive at Strategist. All three mechanisms have the effect of creating an inner radar that pays attention to how we’re doing against our personal checklist of life-enhancing outcomes. They offer a feedback loop. The higher the implicit principles, the greater the opportunity for developing deeper conscious awareness and a higher level of self-expression.

When we realize we’re out of alignment, we can choose to behave more appropriately next time. We impose conscious Awareness on our behavioral response. As Goldsmith puts it, instead of reacting impulsively to a trigger, we take a moment to become aware and choose to respond differently with more positive, respectful and sensitive behaviour. This has the effect of switching off our egoic autopilot reaction.

These methodologies help us to deal with the situation more effectively and behave more like the person we wish to become.

Being more informed on a cognitive level and therefore choosing to act more mindfully in the situation is a great technique to learn. However, while effective in the moment, this solution doesn’t stop the situation from recurring. Forecasting through anticipation, avoidance and adjustment, is not the ultimate answer. Healing inner wounds is.

Healing transforms us so we are no longer triggered by similar situations and indeed, the situations themselves stop recurring.

Every day the universe is providing us with the dream or the drama relative to the healing work we have yet to do. Life is a mirror of our subconscious. Whatever triggers us is a Gift! It signals we are ready for another layer of personal healing.

Healing enables us to become whole, which is the point of holistic leadership. No one is doing anything to us. Everyone is doing their best given their current state of self awareness and personal understanding. They are simply playing a role in our lives to alert us to our own opportunity for healing.

Triggers act as a signalling system that is designed for us to heal and evolve.

We only react to Triggers if we’ve experienced pain in the same type of underlying dynamic before. That pain created an emotional wound on our Heart. The new situation triggers the wound because it is ready to heal. Otherwise bad behaviors just go over our heads. That’s why different types of bad behaviour affect some people and not others. We all have our own personal wounds from childhood – generally one or more form of abuse, neglect, rejection, abandonment, deceit or betrayal.

To live a fulfilling life, it is important for us to grow and evolve as a person.

As we consciously mature we become more compassionate and wise. However to realize our higher self, it is essential to focus inward. Until we have healed our wounds, our Egoic reactions remain. Until we have compassion for ourselves, we cannot extend it to others. Until our mind releases the tug of war between dissonant voices (Ego vs Will), notwithstanding a daily meditation practice, we cannot realize peace of mind.

The GRIEF Process

The process I use with my clients is appropriately called the GRIEF process.

  1. G is for Gift ~ when offended or hurt, simply ask: “What is the gift of this experience?” This begins the healing process. The answer comes later.
  2. R is for Resent and Regret – explore what you feel mad and sad about. What memories does it bring to mind? Express your emotions by talking them through in your mind while taking a walk, writing them in your journal or sharing your feelings with your coach.
  3. I is for Inquiry – once you’ve expressed your emotions fully, you will find you are able to cite the plain facts of the situation objectively, at a distance. This gives you greater perspective on the underlying emotional dynamic.
  4. E is for Empathy – actually walk in the shoes of each person in the current and earlier situations including yourself. It’s often painful childhood events when we lacked awareness that are the source of the recurring dynamic.
  5. F is for Forgive and Forget – to forgive is to be able to say: “Thank you for giving me this experience as I have now learnt from the situation, healed and can move on.” Once forgotten, you’ll know you have forgiven. While you hold onto any distaste for the memory, you’ll know you have more to understand and you'll need to retrace the steps above.

By moving into our Heart space to heal the wounds of the Ego, we naturally become kinder to ourselves and others, and we’re able to move into “flow” where our daily dose of depleting Willpower [Roy Baumeister] is not required to push our way forward. Instead we’re pulled through inspiration and aspiration to new opportunities and resources. Life gets easier in the zone of the Emergent Future! [Otto Scharmer]

The Ego-Heart-Mind-Spirit of Stage Development

Let’s review the Stages briefly. In my view, the Conformist is anchored in the Ego. We are largely dependent and focused on surviving. Life is about safety and security. We then individuate as a Specialist and employ our Will to set high standards and strive. We consolidate as an Achiever in the Heart, we try to win, become independent and thrive. Life is about success and happiness despite the problem that there are both winners and losers.

Then we individuate as a Catalyst, tuning into our intuition to be more sensitive to how we affect others and become a seeker of the meaning in life. When we consolidate as a Strategist with an open mind and can give mindful attention to our expanding awareness, we are interdependent and streaming. Life is about fulfilling our authentic purpose and contributing to the creation of stronger collaborative sustainable communities where everyone grows and prospers.

Marshall Goldsmith writes that:

“Our behaviour is shaped, both positively and negatively, by our environment” - unless we're operating at Strategist!

While events in the external environment shape the lives of Conformists,Specialists and Achievers, this shifts to the other way round as we becomeCatalysts and Strategists. Indeed the definition of a Strategist, being able to lead and sustain business transformation, is essentially because they are able to shape their environment rather than be shaped by it!

If we ignore our triggers they ultimately get worse. I’ve experienced events in my own life and seen many amongst clients where we’ve experienced a catastrophic event in our lives that forces us to conduct a review. The calamity plants the seed for renewal.

In this newly emerging democratic, interdependent, socially interconnected world, we all have the power of our Voice, Values and Vision for the future. The emergent business trends of uber, airbnb and bitcoin suggest that the democratic empowerment of individuals and the simultaneous disruption of conventional commerce is a potential threat to traditional organizations today.

As leaders within large organizations, you can create an empowering architectural infrastructure within your organization that engages everyone automatically and lifts them to Achievers – it’s part of the deal. The Executive Strategic Operating System shows you how to create an orchestrated rhythm for the entire organization and beyond. It establishes the strategic context for the CEO or Divisional Leader to rise to the level of Strategist, like the conductor of an orchestra. You can get a FREE first chapter of my book and the Top Ten Tips for successful implementation here.

Investing in Leadership Development to take the senior leaders to Catalyst andStrategist will enable your organization to reengineer your business model and generate transformational results in the future. In my view this capacity will be essential to avoid becoming obsolete. The % of Catalysts has increased from 23% to 33% in the last ten years amongst organizations investing in leadership development and executive coaching. [Harthill Consulting UK]

Please do LIKE my post if you enjoyed the read, and I'd love your COMMENTS on what you think about bringing more understanding of emotional dynamics and personal authenticity into the workplace?

To receive a FREE Report on Stage Leadership Development and the Key Research Findings in my Doctoral Research Study on the Drivers in Transformational Leadership, please click here.

If you’d like a FREE first Coaching Meeting to clarify your goals, values and intentions, identify the underlying dynamics behind the emotional triggers causing you to react, and find out more about the most valuable next steps you can take to evolve and grow your leadership capacity to Catalyst and Strategist, please click here.

You can also undertake the Global Leadership Assessment, a Sentence Completion Exercise that you can undertake independently, to calibrate your current and emergent stages in leadership development. You'll receive a comprehensive 21-page Profile plus personal debriefing with me.

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All the very best,


Antoinette Braks is a Transforming Executive Coach in Strategic and Holistic Leadership with 25+ years international corporate experience. She has coached more than 50 Senior Executives in recent years, and previously led People and Culture with Shell in Latin America and Africa, and Leadership Capital Solutions with Korn Ferry Asia Pacific. She graduated LLB(Hons) BA, has an MBA from London Business School and is currently completing a PhD in the psychology of transformational leadership.

Antoinette is also the author of Executive SOS ~ The 7 Proven Steps to Set Up Your Own Strategic Operating System to realize your latent capacity as aStrategist. This book is based on the results of her doctoral research study where every participant shifted a full stage in a single year, most to Catalyst and one toStrategist with another knocking on its door! Given that this is commonly thought to take several years, these were surprising, inspiring results.

She loves her work as a Transforming Executive Coach, leading strategic off-sites for Executive Teams and running Leadership Development Programs in organizations.


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