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Triggers, and I don’t mean the horse or it is not easy being green

When I was a boy and things were going right for me, the “green face” would appear.  It was something of a cross between nausea and nervousness. Whatever it was, people knew I was upset.


not easy being greeen

As I got older the “green face” evolved into the “jaw breaker.”  When I heard something that was frustrating or angered me, I ground my jaw.  During staff meetings, people would bet on how quickly the “jaw breaker” would appear.

Both of the “green face” and the “jaw breaker” were destructive to my leadership style.  They didn’t inspire confidence.  They didn’t make my staff feel safe.  They demonstrated my lack of self control.  If I couldn’t control myself, how could I expect to lead others and expect them to follow me?

Triggers and Cues

What I needed to do was first figure out what was causing “green face” and “jaw breaker.”  Yes, I know it was when I was upset, but it was important to determine exactly what was getting me upset.  I had the good fortune to have known and worked with Dr. Barry Glick.  He taught me about triggers and cue—if he is reading this, he might be wincing at my interpretation.

Cues are those physical reactions that let us know we are getting upset. It could be your body starting to shake, sweating or eyes tearing up. It could be a “green face” or a “jaw breaker.” When you identify your cues, take note what is happening.

This should help you identify your “triggers.”  The things people do or the situations that cause you to get angry, to think unclearly, to be stressed.  These are also the things that left unmanaged or uncontrolled can cause us to make bad decisions and to act rashly.

What can you do?

Keep track of the things that “trigger” reactions from you—a log is a great way to do this.  Regular reflection and recording your observations are great strategies. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Did I respond out of anger or frustration today?
  • What were the results?
  • Did I get my desired outcomes?
  • What happened right before I responded in anger or frustration?
  • Why did I get angry or frustrated?

Also keep track of the “cues” your body is giving you when you are reflecting on your behavior:

  • Did my body language change?
  • Did my facial expression change?
  • What if any, were my physical reactions? (Sweating, quickening of my breathing, etc.)

Use this information to determine your cues and triggers.

Now what?

Once you have identified your cues and triggers, think of specific strategies and alternative responses you can use to manage them.  Much like we teach students alternatives to fighting, yelling out or being disrespectful, leaders need to manage their responses so they can instill both respect for themselves and others, while allowing them to lead.  Here is an example of what we are talking about.

Frank is an assistant principal.  Whenever he is dealing with teacher observations, he becomes a bit anxious and starts to feel a little queasy. When he has to provide teachers with feedback, and he feels they are defensive, bordering on defiant, he then starts to feel his breathing increase.  He gets angry and his responses are a bit harsh.

In this example, the triggers are conducting the observations themselves and Frank’s perceptions about teacher responses to his feedback, specifically when they sound defensive or defiant.  The cue is his increased breathing.  When Frank feels this way there are some things he can do:

  • Take some deep breaths—controlling your breathing does help.  Practice deep breaths through your nose and out your mouth
  • Stop and think before you respond—if you can’t do this hold off responding until you are in more control

More importantly is once you know the “what” and the “why”, is preparation.    

  • What will you do when you feel one of your cues or are affected by a trigger?
  • Think about and decide on alternative responses and reactions beforehand.
  • Practice them—roles play-with someone you trust.


The first person leaders must lead is themselves.  Leaders need to be aware that how they respond, both verbally and physically (via body language) affects how people see and hear them. It affects the quality of their leadership and therefore affects the quality of their team’s work.  If people feel a leader’s anger or frustration, they most often miss the content of the message.   Delivery is just as important as content. 

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