Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to Be / Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter
A trigger is any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions. In every waking hour we are being triggered by people, events, and circumstances that have the potential to change us.
Fate is the hand of cards we’ve been dealt. Choice is how we play the hand. It’s the feeling of regret. It’s implied every time we ask ourselves why we haven’t become the person we want to be. Regret is the emotion we experience when we assess our present circumstances and reconsider how we got here.
We replay what we actually did against what we should have done—and find ourselves wanting in some way. Regret can hurt.
Truth #1: Meaningful behavioral change is very hard to do. We can’t admit that we need to change. We do not appreciate inertia’s power over us. We don’t know how to execute a change. We may be motivated to lose weight but we lack the nutritional understanding and cooking ability to design and stick with an effective diet.
Truth #2: No one can make us change unless we truly want to change. Everyone around you has to recognize that you’re changing. Relying on other people increases the degree of difficulty exponentially. An excuse explains why we fell short of expectations after the fact. Our inner beliefs trigger failure before it happens.
1. If I understand, I will do. There’s a difference between understanding and doing. Just because people understand what to do doesn’t ensure that they will actually do it. This belief triggers confusion.
2. I have willpower and won’t give in to temptation. We not only overestimate it, we chronically underestimate the power of triggers in our environment to lead us astray. This belief triggers overconfidence.
3. Today is a special day. Excusing our momentary lapses as an outlier event triggers a self-indulgent inconsistency—which is fatal for change.
4. “At least I’m better than…” This is our excuse to take it easy, lowering the bar on our motivation and discipline. Other people have to change more than we do. We’ve triggered a false sense of immunity.
5. I shouldn’t need help and structure. This is a natural response that combines three competing impulses: 1) our contempt for simplicity (only complexity is worthy of our attention); 2) our contempt for instruction and follow-up; and 3) our faith, however unfounded, that we can succeed all by ourselves. In combination these three trigger an unappealing exceptionalism in us.
6. I won’t get tired and my enthusiasm will not fade. We seldom recognize that self-control is a limited resource. The sheer effort of sticking with the plan triggers depletion.
7. I have all the time in the world. This faith in time’s infinite patience triggers procrastination. We will start getting better tomorrow. There’s no urgency to do it today.
8. I won’t get distracted and nothing unexpected will occur. Earning an undergraduate degree in mathematical economics taught me about the high probability of low-probability events. This belief triggers unrealistic expectations.
9. An epiphany will suddenly change my life. But more often than not, an epiphany experience triggers magical thinking. It might produce change in the short run, but nothing meaningful or lasting—because the process is based on impulse rather than strategy, hopes and prayers rather than structure.
10. My change will be permanent and I will never have to worry again. We set a goal and mistakenly believe that in achieving that goal we will be happy—and that we will never regress. This belief triggers a false sense of permanence. If we don’t follow up, our positive change doesn’t last. It’s the difference between, say, getting in shape and staying in shape—hitting. Even when we get there, we cannot stay there without commitment and discipline.
11. My elimination of old problems will not bring on new problems. This belief triggers a fundamental misunderstanding of our future challenges.
12. My efforts will be fairly rewarded. From childhood we are brought up to believe that life is supposed to be fair. When we are not properly rewarded we feel cheated. Our dashed expectations trigger resentment. Getting better is its own reward.
13. No one is paying attention to me. We believe that we can occasionally lapse back into bad behavior because people aren’t paying close attention. We are practically invisible, triggering a dangerous preference for isolation.
14. If I change I am “inauthentic.” If we change, we are somehow not being true to who we really are. This belief triggers stubbornness. We refuse to adapt our behavior to new situations because “it isn’t me.”
15. I have the wisdom to assess my own behavior. If we’re successful, we tend to credit ourselves for our victories and blame our situation or other people for our losses. This belief triggers an impaired sense of objectivity.
We think we are in sync with our environment, but actually it’s at war with us. It’s situational, and it’s a hyperactive shape-shifter. Every time we enter a new situation, with its mutating who-what-when-where-and-why specifics, we are surrendering ourselves to a new environment—and putting our goals, our plans, our behavioral integrity at risk. It’s a simple dynamic: a changing environment changes us.
Feedback teaches us to see our environment as a triggering mechanism. A feedback loop comprises four stages: evidence, relevance, consequence, and action. A behavioral trigger is any stimulus that impacts our behavior.
1. A behavioral trigger can be direct or indirect. Direct triggers are stimuli that immediately and obviously impact behavior, with no intermediate steps between the triggering event and your response. You see a happy baby and smile. Indirect triggers take a more circuitous route before influencing behavior. You see a family photo that initiates a series of thoughts that compel you to pick up the phone and call your sister.
2. A trigger can be internal or external. External triggers come from the environment, bombarding our five senses as well as our minds. Internal triggers come from thoughts or feelings that are not connected with any outside stimulus.
3. A trigger can be conscious or unconscious. Conscious triggers require awareness. You know why your finger recoils when you touch the hot plate. Unconscious triggers shape your behavior beyond your awareness.
4. A trigger can be anticipated or unexpected. We see anticipated triggers coming a mile away. Unanticipated triggers take us by surprise, and as a result stimulate unfamiliar behavior.
5. A trigger can be encouraging or discouraging. Encouraging triggers push us to maintain or expand what we are doing. They are reinforcing. Discouraging triggers push us to stop or reduce what we are doing.
6. A trigger can be productive or counterproductive. Productive triggers push us toward becoming the person we want to be. Counterproductive triggers pull us away. Triggers are not inherently “good” or “bad.” What matters is our response to them. They express the timeless tension between what we want and what we need. We want short-term gratification while we need long-term benefit. And we never get a break from choosing one or the other. It’s the defining conflict of adult behavioral change.
We can illustrate this conflict In the following matrix where encouraging triggers lead us toward what we want and productive triggers lead us toward what we need.
We Want It and Need It: The upper right quadrant is where we’d prefer to be all the time. They make us try harder right now and they also reinforce continuing behavior that drives us toward our goals. We want them now and need them later.
We Want It but Don’t Need It: This is where we encounter pleasurable situations that can tempt or distract us from achieving our goals.
We Need It but Don’t Want It: The lower right quadrant is a thorny grab bag of discouraging triggers that we don’t want but that we know we need. Rules push us in the right direction even when our first impulse is to go the other way.
We Don’t Need or Want It: The lower left quadrant, where our triggers are both discouraging and counterproductive, is not a good place to be.
The classic sequencing template for analyzing problem behavior in children was known as ABC, for antecedent, behavior, and consequence. The antecedent is the event that prompts the behavior. The behavior creates a consequence.
In his engaging book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg applied this ABC template to breaking and forming habits. Instead of antecedent, behavior, and consequence, he used the terms cue, routine, and reward to describe the three-part sequence known as a habit loop. Duhigg’s Golden Rule of Habit Change—keep the cue and reward, change the routine—
I’ve isolated three eye-blink moments—first the impulse, then the awareness, then a choice—that comprise the crucial intervals between the trigger and our eventual behavior. If there are no bullets in the gun, the trigger doesn’t matter.
Situational Leadership: Hersey and Blanchard believed that leaders should • keep track of the shifting levels of “readiness” among their followers, • stay highly attuned to each situation, • acknowledge that situations change constantly, and • fine-tune their leadership style to fit the follower’s readiness. This was “situational leadership.” It dissected the relationship between leaders and their followers into four distinct styles:
1. Directing is for employees requiring a lot of specific guidance to complete the task.
2. Coaching is for employees who need more than average guidance to complete the task, but with above-average amounts of two-way dialogue.
3. Supporting is for employees with the skills to complete the task but who may lack the confidence to do it on their own.
4. Delegating is for employees who score high on motivation, ability, and confidence.
The four styles are exempt from qualitative judgment. One style is not “better” than another. Each is appropriate to the situation. It’s a simple two-step: measure the need, choose the style.
We are superior planners and inferior doers. The boxer-philosopher Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” As we wander through life, what punches us in the face repeatedly is our environment.
Forecasting is what we must do after acknowledging the environment’s power over us. It comprises three interconnected stages: anticipation, avoidance, and adjustment.
1. Anticipation When our performance has clear and immediate consequences, we rise to the occasion. We create our environment. We don’t let it re-create us.
2. Avoidance Peter Drucker famously said, “Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.” This impulse to always engage rather than selectively avoid is one reason I’m called in to coach executives on their behavior.*2 It’s one of the most common behavioral issues among leaders: succumbing to the temptation to exercise power when they would be better off showing restraint. It’s a simple equation: To avoid undesirable behavior, avoid the environments where it is most likely to occur.
3. Adjustment Adjustment, if we’re lucky, is the end product of forecasting—but only after we anticipate our environment’s impact and eliminate avoidance as an option.
We’re often too distracted to hear what the environment is telling us. the Positive to Negative axis tracks the elements that either help us or hold us back. The Change to Keep axis tracks the elements that we determine to change or keep in the future. Thus, in pursuing any behavioral change we have four options: change or keep the positive elements, change or keep the negative.
• Creating represents the positive elements that we want to create in our future.
• Preserving represents the positive elements that we want to keep in the future. Preserving sounds passive and mundane, but it’s a real choice. We rarely get credit for not messing up a good thing.
• Eliminating represents the negative elements that we want to eliminate in the future. Eliminating is our most liberating, therapeutic action—but we make it reluctantly. In Peter Drucker’s words, I was “sacrificing the future on the altar of today.”
• Accepting represents the negative elements that we need to accept in the future. Instead of metrics, we rely on impressions, which are open to wide interpretation. We take in what we want to hear, but tune out the displeasing notes that we need to hear. Discovering what really matters is a gift, not a burden. Accept it and see.
Apologizing is a magic move. Apology is where behavioral change begins.
Asking for help is a magic move. Asking for help sustains the change process, keeps it moving forward.
Optimism—not only feeling it inside but showing it on the outside—is a magic move. Optimism almost makes the change process a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This chapter introduces a fourth magic move: asking active questions. Active questions are the alternative to passive questions. There’s a difference between “Do you have clear goals?” and “Did you do your best to set clear goals for yourself?” The former is trying to determine the employee’s state of mind; the latter challenges the employee to describe or defend a course of action.
Using those qualities—positive versus negative, proactive versus passive—I tracked the responses to my 11 million miles card to distinguish four levels of engagement:
Committed: The proactively positive employees would examine the card as if they’d never seen it before, and say some variation on “Hey, this is cool.” Some would call over another employee to check out the card.
Professional: Then there are the passively positive responses, best expressed by the woman behind the desk in Dallas who offered the sincere pleasantry, “We appreciate your loyalty, sir.” That’s okay.
Cynical: The most common response I get is the passively negative tone of “That’s nice, sir.” Or “That’s interesting.” Bored with their job and indifferent to customers,
Hostile: At the bottom of the engagement barrel are the proactively negative types who dislike their jobs and can barely tolerate me.
People don’t get better without follow-up. So let’s get better at following up with our people. The difference was not what the company was doing to engage the flight attendants. The difference was what the flight attendants were doing to engage themselves! While any follow-up was shown to be superior to no follow-up, a simple tweak in the language of follow-up—focusing on what the individual can control—makes a significant difference.
1. Did I do my best to set clear goals today? No clear goals, no engagement. Executives demoralized by their leaders’ fecklessness became dramatically more engaged after they started setting their own direction for the day instead of futilely waiting to receive it from someone else.
2. Did I do my best to make progress toward my goals today? We don’t just need specific targets; we need to see ourselves nearing, not receding from, the target. Progress makes any of our accomplishments more meaningful.
3. Did I do my best to find meaning today? It’s up to us, not an outside agency like our company, to provide meaning.
4. Did I do my best to be happy today? because happiness goes hand in hand with meaning, you need both. We think our source of happiness is “out there” (in our job, in more money, in a better environment) but we usually find it “in here”—when we quit waiting for someone or something else to bring us joy and take responsibility for locating it ourselves. We find happiness where we are.
5. Did I do my best to build positive relationships today? One of the best ways to “have a best friend” is to “be a best friend.”
6. Did I do my best to be fully engaged today? To increase our level of engagement, we must ask ourselves if we’re doing our best to be engaged.
Adding the words “did I do my best” added the element of trying into the equation. It injected personal ownership and responsibility into my question-and-answer process. You’re not constructing your list to impress anyone. It’s your list, your life. Injecting the phrase “Did I do my best to…” triggers trying. Trying not only changes our behavior but how we interpret and react to that behavior. Trying is more than a semantic tweak to our standard list of goals. It delivers some unexpected emotional wallops that inspire change or knock us out of the game completely. This is where Daily Questions can be a game-changer. They create a more congenial environment for us to succeed at behavioral change, in several ways.
1. They reinforce our commitment.
2. They ignite our motivation where we need it, not where we don’t. Generally speaking, we are guided by two kinds of motivation. Intrinsic motivation is wanting to do something for its own sake, because we enjoy it, for example, reading a book that isn’t assigned in class, simply because we’re curious about the subject. Extrinsic motivation is doing something for external rewards such as other people’s approval or to avoid punishment.
3. They highlight the difference between self-discipline and self-control. Self-discipline refers to achieving desirable behavior. Self-control refers to avoiding undesirable behavior.
4. They shrink our goals into manageable increments.
Commitment. Motivation. Self-discipline. Self-control. Patience. Those are powerful allies when we try to change our ways, courtesy of Daily Questions. There’s one other ally we’ve left out of this discussion—the coach. At the highest level, a coach is a source of mediation, bridging the gap between the visionary Planner and short-sighted Doer in us. It highlights three benefits of Daily Questions.
1. If we do it, we get better.
2. We get better faster.
3. Eventually we become our own Coach.
Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic? The moral: there’s never anyone in the other boat. We are always screaming at an empty vessel. An empty boat isn’t targeting us. If there’s a person who drives you crazy, you don’t have to like, agree with, or respect him, just accept him for being who he is. It’s the same with all the people who annoy or enrage us. They’re doing it because that’s who they are, not because of who we are. “Our mission in life should be to make a positive difference, not to prove how smart or right we are.” The Buddhism is inward-facing; it’s about maintaining our sanity in the presence of others. The Drucker is outward-facing; it’s about confining our contributions to the positive.
AIWATT creates a split-second delay in our prideful, cynical, judgmental, argumentative, and selfish responses to our triggering environment. Am I willing implies that we are exercising volition—taking responsibility—rather than surfing along the waves of inertia that otherwise rule our day. We are asking, “Do I really want to do this?” At this time reminds us that we’re operating in the present. Circumstances will differ later on, demanding a different response. The only issue is what we’re facing now.
To make the investment required reminds us that responding to others is work, an expenditure of time, energy, and opportunity. And, like any investment, our resources are finite. We are asking, “Is this really the best use of my time?” To make a positive difference places the emphasis on the kinder, gentler side of our nature. It’s a reminder that we can help create a better us or a better world. If we’re not accomplishing one or the other, why are we getting involved? On this topic focuses us on the matter at hand. We can’t solve every problem. The time we spend on topics where we can’t make a positive difference is stolen from topics where we can. The circumstances for deploying AIWATT are not limited to those moments when we must choose to be nice or not (although I can’t overestimate the importance of being nice).
1. When we confuse disclosure with honesty.
2. When we have an opinion.
3. When our facts collide with other people’s beliefs.
4. When decisions don’t go our way.
5. When we regret our own decisions.
have learned one key lesson, which has near-universal applicability: We do not get better without structure. Where are we going? tackled the big-picture priorities at the company. Where are you going? Robert then turned the table and asked each person to answer the same question about themselves, thus aligning their behavior and mindset with Robert’s. the third portion of every meeting required him to openly recognize recent achievements by the executive facing him. Where can we improve? This forced Robert to give his direct reports constructive suggestions for the future—something he’d rarely done and that his people didn’t expect from him. He was not only shaping the world around him, he was learning from it. When we offer our help, we are nudging people to admit they need help. We are adding needed value, not interfering or imposing. How can I become a more effective leader? Asking for help means exposing our weaknesses and vulnerabilities—not an easy thing to do. Structure not only increases our chance of success, it makes us more efficient at it.
The social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister coined the term ego depletion in the 1990s to describe this phenomenon. He contended that we possess a limited conceptual resource called ego strength, which is depleted through the day by our various efforts at self-regulation—resisting temptations, making trade-offs, inhibiting our desires, controlling our thoughts and statements, adhering to other people’s rules. Like fuel in a gas tank, our self-control is finite and runs down with steady use. By the end of the day, we’re worn down and vulnerable to foolish choices. Researchers call this decision fatigue, a state that leaves us with two courses of action: 1) we make careless choices or 2) we surrender to the status quo and do nothing. Depletion, like stress, is an invisible enemy. Under depletion’s influence we are more prone to inappropriate social interactions, such as talking too much, sharing intimate personal information, and being arrogant. Making big decisions late in the day is an obvious risk.
When we have structure, we don’t have to make as any choices; we just follow the plan. And the net result is we’re not being depleted as quickly.
we’re surrendering to our routine, and burning up less energy trying to be disciplined. Our routine has taken care of that. It’s an irresistible equation: the more structure I have, the less I have to worry about. The peace of mind more than compensates for whatever I sacrifice in autonomy. That’s the paradox: We need help when we’re least likely to get it. The simpler the structure, the more likely we’ll stick with it.
Good enough isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem begins when this good enough attitude spills beyond our marketplace choices and into the things we say and do. If your motivation for a task or goal is in any way compromised—because you lack the skill, or don’t take the task seriously, or think what you’ve done so far is good enough—don’t take it on. Find something else to show the world how much you care, not how little. Pro bono is an adjective, not an excuse. If you think doing folks a favor justifies doing less than your best, you’re not doing anyone any favors, including yourself. People forget your promise, remember your performance. It’s like a restaurant donating food to a homeless shelter, but delivering shelf-dated leftovers and scraps that hungry people can barely swallow. The restaurant owner thinks he’s being generous, that any donation is better than nothing. Better than nothing is not even close to good enough—and good enough, after we make a promise, is never good enough.
We are professionals at what we do, amateurs at what we want to become. We need to erase this devious distinction—or at least close the gap between professional and amateur—to become the person we want to be. Being good over here does not excuse being not so good over there. When we engage in noncompliance, we’re not just being sloppy and lazy. It’s more aggressive and rude than that. We’re thumbing our noses at the world, announcing, “The rules don’t apply to us. Don’t rely on us. We don’t care.” We’re drawing a line at good enough and refusing to budge beyond it.
That’s how change begins—with a commitment to improve and notifying people of your plan. We can’t change until we know what to change. We commit a lot of unforced errors in figuring out what to change. We waste time on issues we don’t feel that strongly about. We limit ourselves with rigid binary thinking. Mostly, we suffer a failure of imagination. Any positive change is better than none at all.
The first objective is awareness—being awake to what’s going on around us.
The second is engagement. We’re not only awake in our environment, we’re actively participating in it—and the people who matter to us recognize our engagement.
When we prolong negative behavior—both the kind that hurts the people we love or the kind that hurts us in some way—we are leading a changeless life in the most hazardous manner.