Monday, March 1, 2010

Trigger Truce

Working with a badly-behaving sales team, I noticed an interesting pattern of interaction at their weekly staff meetings. A tit-for-tat response pattern had developed over a few grueling months when their sales targets had increased, but the capacity to pursue leads had not been commensurately augmented. The pressure from this inverse equation led to a cycle of escalated bickering. Over time, as the intensity increased the sour interactions began to erode the trust and capacity for the kind of sophisticated collaboration required among team members.

After a few one-to-one conversations to explore the underlying issues and concerns from various perspectives, it turned out that they were in fact triggering each others’ insecurities regarding the difficulty of achieving the sales goals. As a result, rather than working together to meet the stretch goals for their team, they developed hair-pin triggers that decreased focus on priorities, encouraged disruptive communication and ultimately sabotaged their own efforts to meet their targets.

Our responses to triggers may not be wanted or even conscious, though they often surface with a force of will all their own. Without delving too deeply into the complex psychology of triggers, here’s a simple way to define triggers in the workplace: the attitudes, words (spoken and unsaid), and actions that spark a rehearsed response based on a past experience. Once the context and nature of triggers are identified, we gain room to assess our knee-jerk reactions and seek alternative choices that are more aligned with our goals.

As I began working with this sales team to explore their triggers, I reminded them of a few key factors to pay attention to. I put them into the form of questions to generate insights and discussion: 1) when are you more likely to be triggered into the pattern of ineffective behavior (e.g. high stress level, etc.); 2) what, if any, gap do you see in the intensity of your response and the intensity of the circumstances; and 3) what is perhaps fueling this pattern and making it such a significant part of your experience at work? Once we began discussing these questions, the conversation actually took a humorous tone. As one person put it, “it was more comfortable to poke fun at myself for acting childish because it took the pressure off of blaming the other team members.”

Once individuals began to more clearly identify the kinds of inciting behaviors that were undermining their work together, I invited them to waive the white flag and hold a trigger truce for 30 days. The goal was to allow them to clear the air, get off of the “reactionary offensive” and to notice how, if at all, the quality of their interactions changed as a result of the stopped behavior. Most importantly, the trigger truce gave them an opportunity to look with fresh eyes at their work priorities in order to make greater progress on the essential tasks and responsibilities that had been put aside during the interpersonal issue.

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