Management Blind, piercing rage


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:

  1. 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.
  2. Our mental wiring is far from perfect.
  3. 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.”

“I quit.”

Wait, what?

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.

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14 Responses

  1. Jason 11 years ago

    Fabulous post. Thank you for discussing the big three triggers.

    One of my personal triggers is Management or Business Leaders running out that horrible trope that “Salary isn’t important to job satisfaction”, or that “titles don’t matter”, or “we have an open/cubicle/crap office setup to facilitate work getting done”.

    The “Business” world so so so very much wants this Big Three to not matter. But as you said they are the primary trigger for many people. The condescension about them from management just helps fuel the rage. What is even worse is that the Management so often knows they’re lying and we know they know they’re lying. Most of the staff, if they’re paying any attention, know the financial situation of the business well enough to equate their salary and bonuses and “profit sharing” to their value in the organization. And like you say, its that a realism that sets up a potential trigger.

    One of the first things I realized when I first got a leadership role and had influence over someones title and raises, is that everyone claims to want to be treated fairly, but the concept of what was fair was different for EVERY person. You had to know what they though fair was in order to handle their expectations and avoid these triggers. Thats not an easy task at all.

  2. I can instantly identify myself as having a “location” trigger. Each time I get a raise, it’s nice but it doesn’t feel like the “reason” I’m here. Years ago I was given authority to order business cards with a title of my choosing (within reason), and just never got around to it. However, my office is my haven. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with measurable status, but if I was forced to share it, I might reconsider the entire arrangement.

  3. I’m a teacher in a Further Education college (Community College in US). Knowing the (not so predictable) trigger points for my students, especially those in 16-19 year range, is essential to class management. It is as simple as that.

    At present, we have eliminated compensation as a trigger point among teachers as we have standardised scale and progression. UK Govt is about to tear that up and move to ‘performance related pay’, which isn’t going to work, but they are new in power, and have to try these things.

    The big one is location for most teachers. Both office and classroom. Managers have to be so careful about room allocation!

    Thanks for providing the vocabulary to talk about this with…

  4. My main trigger at work is appreciation. I didn’t get much of that in my last job for the last two years I was in it, and then out of the blue came a paltry stock option grant as a weak thank you. I was instantly triggered, and was gone within thirty days.

    One of my former triggers was location. One company switched from offices to cubes and I felt white hot rage. It was worth my time to unpack that one, and get to root cause, and figure out how not to make it a problem anymore. Because in my career, which spans 24 years, I’ve had something like 38 different places to sit. It’s just not worth getting my shorts in a knot over a spot I don’t like. (Like the one I’m in now.)

    Maybe I should unpack the appreciation trigger, too.

  5. Revolving the discussion around the concept of triggers is an appreciable basis for giving advice, but as a student of interpersonal communication, I’d argue a better center is the concept of “expectations”. In fact, you touched upon this throughout the article.

    Your concept of triggers, and the Big Three you mention, evolve from miscommunication of expectations. One party believes another other party has agreed to meet certain expectations, when in fact they have not. (This describes the vast majority of problems between rational, self-interested entities, including romantic relationships and business partnerships.) Most often, this is because the expectations simply have not been expressed, were vague, or have changed. One of the common traits of the Big Three are that they are circumstances of voluntary employment that are rarely discussed.

    From there, different bits of advice might be derived, including: make ongoing efforts both to break down cultural barriers to discussing the Big Three and to explicitly identify other unexpressed expectations, to understand disappointment/rage in terms of unmet expectations (keyboards “should” have a long key life, and since you don’t chew loudly with your mouth open others “shouldn’t” either), to frame disagreements in terms of unclear expectations. This can restore a sense of rationality, responsibility, and constructivity to the situation.

  6. Very insightful post. I enjoy reading your blog.

  7. Pontus 11 years ago

    Thanks for a very nice read, I’ve followed the blog for a good while and seeing an unread item in my RSS feed always brings a smile to my face.

  8. Karla 11 years ago

    This was a good time for this article! Not work-related rage (although I can relate to the noisy noshing sounds coming over the cube walls), but I recently exploded over my husband’s badgering me (again) about money. A trigger every married couple has, I’m sure, especially when one spouse treats the other like a naughty little child spending daddy’s money.

  9. Karla 11 years ago

    @Jim: I’ve never had the appreciation trigger. I do my job, I do it well, and feel the satisfaction of a job well done. As long as I have continued employment and a paycheck, I feel appreciated. Giving me a trophy or certificate or pat on the back doesn’t pay the bills. Let it go. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Andrew 11 years ago

    What would you say to Frank in this situation? If prevention hasn’t worked and it’s time to try and get him “through the trigger weirdness,” what do you say to a response like “I quit”?

  11. Mayson Lancaster 11 years ago

    About 30 years ago I was working for a company in Southern California, and after a couple of years, they gave me some stock options. 100 shares. Vesting over years. Trigger. I was gone in a few months.

  12. Debi Wong 11 years ago

    So what I got from triggers from other people that is seemingly aimed towards you is that it is not about you. It is usually a conversation they are having within themselves about someone or something else. If someone told me “I quit”, and if they were valued team member, I’d tell them to wait 48 hours then tell me what they want to do.

    I find I rarely get mad enough to yell or act hostile towards someone, its stupid things like misplacing my keys or phone. I do have a friend in my life I have gotten angry at, but kept my cool in explaining why I was angry at her. I have said about certain people in my life, “if I did not love so and so, I’d kill them!”.

    I do work in the field of medicine and nursing and there is a weirdness that if they don’t like something you have done, or think you have made a mistake, there is a tendency for them to say you are not fit to practice. I find this attitude quite toxic and has driven many people from the field.

    Thanks for your insightful thoughts.

  13. Barry Williams 11 years ago

    I truly appreciate the practicality of both your perspective and the step by step instruction of how a seasoned manager deals with this fairly common scenario. Any manager with people will eventually set off a trigger in one or more of their team members. It is as inevitable as the sun coming up and so our job is less about prevention and more about managing our own reaction and actions afterward well when it happens. Thanks for the tips and for sharing personal details to provide context.

  14. Robbie 11 years ago

    A few years ago I learned that location is my big trigger. We were moving from one office building to another. When we moved into the current building, there were 5 people in the company in my role with my title and we all got offices. Eventually I ended up with one with a great river view. At the time of the move to the next building our organization had grown by about 110 people with about 40 of them sharing my title. The office space didn’t have floor space to give all 45 of us offices so we all got open cubicles instead.

    In advance of the move, they set up a 4-cubicle sample work area so we could see what the new ‘modern’ workstations would look like. The cubicles were modern looking but they were set up in a dark, dingy area on a neglected floor in our old office space. I made the mistake of checking out the space. I was furious – the angriest I’ve ever been at work in more than 25 years in the workplace.

    I have a great working relationship with the woman who was my boss at that point. When she asked what I thought about the new setup, I told her that I would have given her my retirement notification if I were old enough to retire. She was stunned that my reaction was so extreme.

    The irony – within a few weeks of moving I’ve adjusted for the most part. At times the noise from those around me gets bad but I’m dealing with it (with the help of noise-cancelling headphones). It helps that I was assigned the best cube space on the floor… I’ve got a corner with 2 windows and the width of my workspace is about 3 feet wider than standard because of a pillar at the building corner.