Mad. Furious. Instantaneous rage. I’m not proud to admit it, but there is a short list of seemingly inconsequential events that give me blind, piercing rage.
It’s an embarrassing list that I cannot fully share, but here’s a few:
- When a single key on my keyboard is slowly failing.
- When you chew with your mouth open (and I can hear it).
- When I lose my wallet in my own house, in my own room.
I told you they were trivial, but I didn’t tell you the depth of the rage I experience because it completes my embarrassment. If I sit here carefully and clearly explaining that when you chew with your mouth open (and I can hear it) that I sincerely want to lean across the table and punch you in the mouth, I realize this is batshit insane. You can be assured that I’ve never actually slugged a single human, but this doesn’t change my internal reaction or my point.
Every human has a handful of triggers.
It’s beyond my ability to explain how these triggers are built, but if you can’t yet relate, remember the last time you accidentally hit your head on a kitchen cabinet while your significant other watched. You noticed two things: first, it hurt — bad. Second, when your significant other asked, “Oh no, are you ok?” your instinct was to scream, “NO, I AM NOT OK, I JUST HIT MY HEAD AND IT HURT.” You want to lash out at the person who is caring about your well being.
After years of professional self-reflection, I am sure of three things regarding triggers:
- For non-kitchen cabinet pain-based triggers, their origin is non-obvious. The key on my keyboard not working is not disproportionately enraging me not just because of the hindered productivity. The root cause of my fury is far more complicated, sinister, and deeply buried in the back of my head.
- Our mental wiring is far from perfect.
- I would likely benefit from professional therapy.
You have triggers. They are delightfully, privately, and weirdly yours. I don’t need to know them, but as a person who hangs with other people I need you to feel and remember the sensitivity you feel in the middle of a trigger — the instant mindlessness. The blind rage. The lack of rational faculties.
Can you feel it?
Good. Let’s talk about how to communicate with your team.
The Big Three
There are three situations that can easily trigger members of your team.They involve: title, compensation, and location. That’s right. The title on a business card, the amount of money someone receives, and where they sit. In my career as a leader of humans, I have spent an inordinate amount of time cleaning up where a lead has underestimated the trigger impact of a seemingly unimportant discussion regarding title, compensation, and location.
I call these the Big Three and the Big Three are part of a handful of objective measures and goals a person can achieve that are well known, easy to compare, and understood by the whole team. The Big Three, right or wrong, have accreted unexpected status; they’ve become disproportionately highly valued. They’ve become a yardstick by which a person measures success. This is why something seemingly as simple as office relocations become a multiple meeting clusterfuck. It’s not just that they care where they sit; it’s that they believe there is measurable status applied to where they sit.
There is a single universal realization that occurs in conversations about the Big Three, and it’s a doozy: In a moment, I understand that the world values me drastically differently than I expected.
Drastically Different Than Expected
“Frank, we had a really good quarter. We shipped the update, we’re solidly into the next major release and I’d like to give you a $5k raise.”
First, before you try to untangle anything, before you try to handle the situation, before you screw this up further, repeat after me: trigger. Frank just metaphorically hit his head on the corner of the kitchen cabinet and just about any proactive action on your part will result in him lashing out further. While we sit here waiting for Frank’s next move, some advice:
Understand that judgment is temporarily impaired by triggers. Just like The Disaster, judgement is way off not just at the moment of the trigger, but for some time. Unlike the kitchen cabinet scenario, chances are, as we’ll talk about more in a moment, Frank saw part of this coming. This doesn’t decrease the intensity of the trigger, but it does increase the duration, because he’s been chewing on this trigger for a while. When I know someone has been triggered, I don’t trust their judgment regarding much of anything: they’ve been triggered.
Understand that while facts, data, and conversation will eventually be helpful, in a trigger situation time is the only initial cure. There’s value in talking through the situation in the moment, but, again, faulty wiring. They’re furious — perhaps for valid reasons — and until the fury passes, it’s less a conversation than a very important vent.
Wait for Frank. It’s not always the best advice, but when I stumble on a trigger, I usually wait — sometimes a long time — for Frank to say something. In my mind, I’m watching him standing there, rubbing where he hit his head, shouting, “YOU KNOW THAT FUCKING HURT.” Too often I have jumped in with some helpful advice only to have it twisted and thrown back in my face because Frank was triggered.
Right, it’s been 37 seconds and Frank has just said something disarming that acknowledges the magnitude of his reaction. Now, you can start mentally triaging. How in the world is a $5k raise a reason for quitting? Here’s the cheat sheet. Do you remember when Frank was hired two years ago and you brought him in on the high side of the salary recommendations? You forgot that, right? Yeah, you also didn’t notice his subtle disappointment to the $5k raise last year. You didn’t expect him to talk to several members of the team regarding their raises, which were $10k. Of course, he didn’t ask about base salary, which is much lower than his. Frank’s trigger is based on over a year of build-up where he believed he’s being under-compensated, when the reality is that he’s the highest paid engineer on the team.
Reflecting on the many triggers I’ve encountered in my professional career, the situation is always that the story the person was telling themselves was drastically different than the one I, their lead, was suddenly telling them. It’s never a complete surprise because they’ve been picking up on subtle clues about the story leading up to the conversation, but hearing me say it makes it real, and having it involve quantifiable status-based topics like a title, an office, and a raise makes it that much more real.
You Can’t Be Too Paranoid
The Big Three are certainly not the only trigger scenarios out there, but they are a knowable set. I approach all conversations regarding the Big Three as if I were walking through a minefield where there is only one map and it was drawn by me — when I was drunk. It’s certainly useful to have this map, but I remain suspect.
You cannot be too paranoid going into these conversations. You can’t reflect too much. How has every conversation regarding compensation gone with this person? What were their reactions? What questions did they ask? Have they ever said anything about title? What? When? How often? You’re about to alter the story they’ve been telling themselves, so as best you can you need to understand their story — not yours.
Is it a fair change? There are far too many local variables to make this advice that useful, but in considering the change that you are describing to this person, do you fully believe that it’s reasonable, fair, consistent, and understandable? Can you completely tell the story with no niggling concerns in the back of your head? Would everyone on the team agree that this person has earned this title? Does this seating layout acknowledge how this team feels about offices? Does this compensation change reflect your company’s compensation philosophy?
Remember, it’s a minefield because we, as an industry, have fucked up these conversations — a lot. Crap managers who award titles because they like someone, offices because of title rather than ability or need, compensation based on following the broadest guidelines provided by HR rather than taking the time to understand the complete compensation picture. It’s a minefield because they’re expecting us to screw it up because that’s what we usually do.
A First Line of Defense
Healthy paranoia and prior experience in delivering these types of messages will improve your ability to deliver level-setting information. However, even with all this preparation, you’re still going to stumble on triggers. It’s unavoidable.
To talk about triggers, I had to reduce the trigger scenarios down to the knowable Big Three because we’ll likely never know why someone talking with their mouth full causes me unbridled rage. It’s also not your problem that I have this trigger. It’s mine and it’s up to me to stand up when you’re mash-mash-mashing your food and telling me about your trip to Guatemala and say, “Excuse me for a moment, I must rage elsewhere”.
In order to handle triggers in the workplace, you must first own your trigger weirdness. Acknowledging your faulty mental wiring can serve as a best first line of defense - it gives you solid trigger appreciation. Humans are messy and will blow up, but your job is suspend judgement, keep quiet, and give them time to cool down. It’s not your job to fix the trigger, it’s your job to first get them through the trigger weirdness and then to figure out how to close the kitchen cabinet door so they don’t hit their head again.