For weeks, I had worked on a team tasked with planning and developing a strategy to launch a new initiative. When I was ready to present it to my boss, I was confident we would gain his buy-in.
But he didn’t. The timing, resources, and broader support for our ideas just weren’t there.
When I heard his answer, I felt disappointed — and angry. My heart began to pound through my chest, my muscles tensed up, and I could feel my face prickle as it flushed. All I could think about was the injustice of it all.
Perhaps you’ve experienced something that has triggered a reaction in you like this before. Maybe it made you feel frustrated, stressed, or upset. Interestingly enough, these triggers often reveal our motivations.
Leadership expert Dr. David Rock created the SCARF model, a valuable tool for helping to identify social triggers. It lists five of the most common reasons people get upset:
Status: What’s my social position within the group?
Certainty: What will happen next?
Autonomy: Am I in control?
Relatedness: Am I in or out of the group?
Fairness: Was this an equitable exchange?
Each of us may respond differently to these social experiences. For example, you might find yourself anxious about some unexpected changes at work because you crave a greater sense of certainty about the future. Or you might be struggling with fairness: It seems that other less-deserving employees are advancing further than you.
Whatever the case may be, triggers can become significant professional roadblocks if you don’t learn to anticipate them and take steps to overcome them. The better you understand what threatens and motivates you (and others), the more effectively you can manage your response to them.
Here’s how to get past them:
1. Ground yourself
Studies have shown that centeredness — the ability to be aware of yourself and your thoughts — is linked to great leadership. Centered people are able to think more clearly and connect with others more fully.
In the rush of your workday, take a moment to ground yourself. Stand or sit in a deliberate, settled position. Breathe in and recognize everything that’s flowing through your mind and your body. Once you’re feeling aware, continue with your day, carrying that awareness with you.
2. Put your feelings into words
Neuroscience studies by professor Amy Arnsten show that when we’re feeling very emotional, thinking becomes more difficult.
It’s also tougher to make rational decisions when our minds are clouded. When we’re stressed, our brains release chemicals that direct energy away from our prefrontal cortex— which controls our thinking ability — and instead strengthen our amygdala. And according to Arnsten, this elicits “unconscious emotional reactions.”
In these moments, put your feelings into words before taking action. “I’m feeling frustrated, sad, disappointed.” Say it aloud, whisper it to yourself, or write it down. This is a cognitive strategy called “labeling” that reduces the emotional arousal in your brain. It will surprise you how simply getting those feelings out of your mind will help you calm down, think more clearly, and connect more easily with others.
3. Reframe the problem
We all get stuck in our own perspectives and our own problems. But one of the most powerful cognitive strategies is to reframe what we’re experiencing and find the hidden benefits.
After you’ve grounded yourself and put your feelings into words, try re-examining the problem from a new angle. What could this challenge offer you in terms of learning? Could it present an opportunity for you or someone on your team?
When my team’s idea wasn’t implemented on a companywide level, I was understandably upset. But over the years, I’ve learned that I can’t let my anxiety and conflict about a tough situation take control of my work life. Use these tips to start developing your own self-awareness and overcome the personal triggers that get in the way of your professional progression.
Elise Mitchell is founder and chairman of Mitchell, an award-winning strategic communications firm. She has received numerous awards, including being named PRWeek Agency Public Relations Professional of the Year and a Top 50 Power Player in PR. Elise’s book “Leading Through the Turn” is now available for purchase. Find out more about the book here.