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Book Review: Triggers

Marshall Goldsmith is one of the most renowned Executive Coaches on the planet and I am honored to be a Marshall Goldsmith Certified Executive Coach. His approach to coaching is centered on Behavioral Change Management and his engagements are guaranteed to deliver measurable, positive outcomes for his clients. Marshall’s credentials are impressive. He is is the Thinkers50 world’s most influential leadership thinker. He has been recognized by Thinkers50, Fast Company, INC Magazine, Global Gurus as the World’s Leading Executive Coach, and his book Triggers has been listed as a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.

Triggers is one of my favorite and most prescribed books. The fundamentals of the book are based on Marshall’s belief that environmental and psychological triggers can derail us at work and in our lives. He points out that our reactions to certain situations don’t occur in a vacuum and that they are usually the result of triggers in our environment. These triggers are “people and situations that lure us into behaving in a manner diametrically opposed to the colleague, partner, parent or friend we imagine ourselves to be.”

The book is divided into four parts.

Part One answers the question “Why Don’t We Become the Person We Want to Be?” In this part, he explores the two truths of behavioral change. He comments that “Meaningful behavioral change is very hard to do” and that “No one can make us change unless we truly want to change.” He discusses the fourteen “Belief Triggers That Stop Behavioral Change in Its Tracks” and how the environment plays a significant role in our ability to change our behavior.

One of the most valuable parts of the book is outlined in chapter 4, “Identifying Our Triggers.” In this chapter, he explains that triggers can be direct or indirect, internal or external, conscious or unconscious, anticipated or unexpected, encouraging or discouraging, and productive or counterproductive. He adds a very nice graphic on page 48 that details our productive and counterproductive behaviors and answers the question of whether we “Want It vs. Need It.”

“Unfortunately, what we want often lures us away from what we need.”

The second half of Part One details How Triggers Work and unfolds two key processes. The first one he calls ABC (Antecedent, Behavior and Consequence) and the second is the Trigger – Impulse -Awareness – Choice – Behavior sequence. He outlines how, when it comes to behavioral change,”We Are Superior Planners and Inferior Doers.” Lastly, he discusses “The Wheel of Change” and how we have four options in the process of change. Create or preserve the positive elements and to eliminate or accept the negative.

Part Two, which begins with chapter 9, is focused on the actions to change our behaviors. This is the actionable part of the book and it’s where change actually begins. He points out that by using the “Power of Active Questions”, something he learned from his daughter, people become more engaged. He outlines that “engaged employees are [both] positive and proactive about their relationships to their job.”

With this in mind, chapter 10 outlines “The Engaging Questions” we should be asking ourselves as we evaluate how we are doing against our objectives. Marshall suggests that, based on his research, all engaging questions start with “Did I do my best to….” This not only provides us with the action but also the degree of engagement for that action. A very important part of behavioral change management. It’s not a binary action (e.g. “Did I…”) and it’s quantitative because the effort can be measured daily on a scale and progress can be tracked. He lists an example on page 118.

“There’s no correct number of questions. The number is a personal choice, a function of how many issues you want to work on.”

In chapter 11, Marshall points out that these questions “reinforce our commitment” to change, “they ignite our motivation where we need it, not where we don’t”, “they highlight the difference between self-discipline and self-control” and “they shrink our goals into manageable increments.” The following chapter takes all of this and puts it into action and provides the means for us to be our own coach.

The final chapter of part two is about commitment. Marshall uses the acronym AIWATT (“Am I willing, at this time”) and phrases it in the form of a question of commitment (e.g. “Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?”). He points out that “AIWATT is the delaying mechanism we should be deploying in the interval between trigger and behavior.” He teaches that it comes in “after a trigger creates an impulse and before a behavior we may regret” and that “AIWATT creates a split-second delay in our prideful, cynical, judgmental, argumentative, and selfish responses to our triggering environment.”

Part Three, he discusses that “we do not get better without structure” and that “it has to be the right structure.” In chapter 14 he tells the story of his relationship with Alan Mullaly, CEO of Ford Motor Company, and how structure helped Alan become a better CEO. In chapter 15 he notes that structure is not for everyone and that people respond differently to structure.

“it has to be structure that fits the situation and the personalities involved.”

Chapter 16 has one of the most interesting titles, “Behaving under the influence of depletion.” How many times have we tried to deal with critical issues when we are physically and emotionally depleted? Marshall suggests that we should guard against making decisions during difficult, stressful times. He recommends that critical events should take place earlier in the day when we are fresh. This reduces the risk of being derailed by a trigger.

“making big decisions late in the day is an obvious risk.”

Marshall calls out in chapter 17 that sometimes “We need help when we’re least likely to get it.” We can guard our behavior when we know something is coming. For example, an important meeting, but what happens during “all the unguarded interpersonal moments that aren’t marked down on our schedules?” These are times when our triggers might get us in trouble. For this, he suggests “Hourly Questions” in chapter 18.

In the last two chapters in this section, Marshall deals with getting to a point in our change process where we say that our change is “Good Enough” and lapses start to occur and he identifies times when we are the trigger for someone else.

“striving stops, our lapses become more frequent, and we begin to coast on our reputation.”

In Part Four, Marshall discusses “The Circle of Engagement” and how this five-step process helps us make lasting behavioral change. The circle includes identifying the triggers, the associated impulse, build self-awareness, enact a choice, and choose the right behavior that fits the situation.

“When we embrace a desire for awareness and engagement, we are in the best position to appreciate all the triggers the environment throws at us.”

The final chapter discusses “The Hazard of Leading a Changeless Life.” I have learned through my coaching experience that we don’t make behavioral changes unless we fully understand the consequences of our behaviors. In closing, he challenges us to “think about one change, one triggering gesture, that you won’t regret later on.”

This is a great book to read if you are struggling to change certain behaviors and you need a good process to enable the change.

I hope this book review has been useful and that you can put the information contained in the book to good use in your leadership journey. Drop me a note if you have any questions on how to apply this to your role.


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