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Book Review: Triggers

Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith Book Review by Bob Schoultz All American Leadership

Why this book: This book was selected by the team I work with – All American Leadership – to be read and discussed as a group. I am familiar with Marshall Goldsmith’s approach – have seen him speak several times, met him, read some of his other writings. And I like his approach.

My Impressions: Marshall Goldsmith offers us the practical advice he gives to his coaching clients on how to become better leaders and people. To use his words: “One of this book’s central arguments is that our environment affects us in powerful, insidious, and mysterious ways.” Triggers discusses the interaction between who we are, and the environment in which we act, and offers simple and practical advice on how to be proactive in changing how we react to our environment. His point is that much of our behavior is driven by our responses to “triggers”- those situations and people in our environment that push our buttons, and drive us to behave the way we do. He points out that we are often unaware of these triggers. The result is that we often impact others and our environment in ways that we either don’t intend, or are unaware of.

Triggers is a “self-help” book offering a very practical guide for changing our behavior, and in the process, improving our character. He gives many examples of how his clients have used his approach to change their behavior and how those changes positively affected the way they think and see the world. When his clients changed undesired or dysfunctional behavior, their improved behavior positively affected the worlds in which they lived and worked.

“My main goal in writing this book has been relatively modest: to help you achieve lasting positive change in the behavior that is most important to you.” He says most of us need accountability measures – help from others, or from a coach – to keep us on track, and to help us determine whether we REALLY want to get better, or simply say we do.

What I like most about Triggers is that it does not allow the reader to be a victim and accepts no self-pity. He states throughout the book that we must own our responses to whatever our environment throws at us. He effectively invokes simple Buddhist precepts in recommending acceptance of things we can’t control, while working hard to control what we can. One is reminded of the Serenity Prayer. And of Stoicism.

A few ideas from the book, to perhaps wet your appetite:

He claims that there are two immutable “Truths” in changing our behavior:

Meaningful behavior change is hard to do.

No one can make us change unless we truly want to change.

He offers up 15 beliefs or misconceptions that get in the way of real behavioral change, to include one of my favorites: “An epiphany will suddenly change my life.”

He has a great chapter on “engagement” noting that he believes much of the data indicates that American workers are disengaged because of the way the questions upon which the data are based, are asked. He puts a large part of the responsibility on the workers themselves. They are not “choosing” to be engaged.

Goldsmith strongly advocates “active” questions. Rather than ask an employee “Were you engaged in your work today?” he recommends that we ask “Did you do your best to be engaged in your work today?” He notes that the second question puts much of the responsibility for engagement on the employee, not simply the management team.

He offers up six fundamental “active” questions – the cover of the book calls these “6 Questions to Kick-Start Change” – but suggests that each individual craft the questions that best fit their personal needs for growth in their own lives and work: He suggests:

Did I do my best to:

  1. Set goals today?

  2. Make progress toward my goals today?

  3. Find meaning today?

  4. Be happy today?

  5. Build positive relationships today?

  6. Be fully engaged today?

He points to the secret power of daily check-ins and self-questioning on whether we’re “doing our best” to be as good as we want to be. He points out that if we keep falling short on a particular goal, eventually we realize that that goal is clearly not that important to us, and we will either stop asking ourselves how we’re doing, or we will push ourselves to more effective action.

In answering these questions, he strongly recommends grading or quantifying our effort in each endeavor. This allows us to better “structure” our effort, which he insists is essential for most of us to progress.

I enjoyed his discussion of the insidious effects of emotional and motivational “depletion” that come from the stress of managing our emotions and responses, in environments where certain behaviors are expected or demanded for us to be effective. From my own experience running a large organization, I know that my decisions at the end of the day, or the end of the week were not as confident, compassionate, insightful, or wise as at the beginning. “Depletion” as he describes it, is more than just being tired.

I loved his Buddhist parable of “the empty boat.” My wife and I now ask each other, when we start getting upset at something, whether we’re railing against an “empty boat.” There’s just no point in getting upset at an empty boat. Goldsmith the Buddhist, says, “It’s always an empty boat.”

The bottom lines to Triggers:

“Change doesn’t happen overnight; Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day-in and day-out; If we make the effort we get better. If we don’t we won’t.”

AND: “In order to make meaningful change in our lives, we need: commitment, motivation, self-discipline, self control, patience.

There is a lot of wisdom, and great practical advice in Triggers. I recently told a friend/mentor about Goldsmith’s recommendations for daily questions. My friend responded, “So, what are your daily questions?” Hmmm…Wake up call. Ok. Time to get started, especially if I’m serious about becoming a better person.


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