Leadership Lessons from Road Rage Part 2 – Name Triggers to Improve Self Awareness

Improve Self Awareness

Can a road-raging lunatic really teach us to improve self awareness and become better leaders?

Naming your emotions is about understanding what you’re feeling. Naming your triggers is about understanding why you’re feeling that way.

Why the metaphor of road rage? It provides an extreme but relatable example, which makes it easy to study. While we do see instances of rage at the office, more often we deal with smaller emotional swings that affect our performance over time. Taking an intentional approach to understanding our emotions pays big dividends over the long term, as we are able to manage ourselves and our professional relationships in a way that generates positive outcomes for our customers, employees, and businesses. By examining road rage, we can draw insights into our daily emotional journeys.

As leaders, we are called to inspire people with a vision of the future that creates purpose for their work. This requires us to connect with our colleagues on an emotional level, making emotional intelligence an essential component of effective leadership.

Self awareness is the core emotional intelligence competency that sets the foundation for the others. As Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee explain in their book Primal Leadership,

… self-awareness facilitates both empathy and self-management, and these two, in combination, allow effective relationship management. Emotional Intelligence leadership, then, builds up from a foundation of self-awareness.

In Leadership Lessons from Road Rage Part 1, we looked at the practice of naming our emotions as they happen, to understand what we’re experiencing in the moment and create space for choosing our reactions. We examined the five emotions: Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Shame. Every feeling is derived from one of these five emotions, ranging in intensity from mild to extreme.

In this article, let’s extend the practice of naming the emotion to naming the trigger – the emotional need that was violated or validated, prompting the emotional response we experience. This practice allows us to explore both the emotion and why we felt it, improving self awareness and overall emotional intelligence. 

Let’s look at a fictional story to provide a case study for exploration. 

Ordinary Tom Becomes a Road Raging Lunatic

Today was the big day. Tom woke early and dressed in his best suit. He usually wore business casual, but today he wanted to look sharp for the presentation. After weeks of preparation, the day was finally here. Tom buzzed around the bathroom with nervous anticipation. He rehearsed the high level points in his head, remembering the key phrases he needed to articulate to support his proposal.

He kissed his wife, Mary, on the cheek. She turned over in bed and mumbled, “Bye,” before going back to sleep. He had hoped she’d wake up to see him off, but he could understand her wanting to get another few minutes of sleep.

He left the house early, allowing extra time to go by the coffee shop. Tom considered himself a “regular,” stopping in often enough that the barista knew his name and his drink – a medium Americano with an extra shot. This morning, the cafe bustled with activity. He stood in line for longer than he’d planned, and now Tom was worried about being late. He finally stepped up to the register. The barista, distracted by the flurry of customers, barely recognized him and said nothing about his snazzy suit. He ordered his drink and then went to stand by the delivery counter while it was prepared.

Tom nervously checked his watch as he waited. By the time they called his name, he was seven minutes later than anticipated and getting anxious. He grabbed his coffee and rushed for his car. His tires screeched as he accelerated out of the parking lot.

Sitting in traffic at a red light, Tom finally took a sip of his coffee – and grimaced in disgust! “This is not an Americano!” he fumed. “This is some sugary latte. I’m there three times a week, they should know I like my coffee strong and black.”

The light turned green and Tom hit the gas. He accelerated to highway speed as he entered the onramp. Just as he was about to merge onto the freeway, “some idiot” came racing from behind, swerved in front of him to exit, and slammed on the brakes. Tom blasted the horn.

Somewhere deep in the recesses of Tom’s brain, a switch flipped, and a chain reaction of neurotransmitters cascaded through his consciousness like a waterfall. Ordinary Tom retreated to a small corner of his mind, and a road-raging lunatic emerged. 

Tom dominated the freeway as he swerved across lanes, in and out of traffic. He tailgated “some moron” on the phone, finally swerving around the car and signalling with a gesture. He blew his horn at a semi that was taking too long to change lanes. His speedometer hit 90 as Tom found a break in the traffic, only to slam on his brakes again when he caught the next wave of congestion. His swerved aggressively, with no regard to his own safety or the safety of others.

How do you think Tom felt walking into his big presentation? How could Tom have avoided this emotional meltdown, and set himself up for success on this crucial day?

Emotional Needs are Violated or Validated

If Tom were more self aware, his morning might have turned out differently. 

Self awareness can be increased through the practice of mentally naming the emotion being felt in the moment. Every feeling can be mapped back to one of the five emotions: Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Shame. 

We can extend this practice by naming the emotional need that was either violated or validated to understand why the emotion was triggered. This exercise improves self awareness, which is the foundation for self management – rationally choosing the response to emotional stimulus. 

For our purpose in developing self awareness to become better leaders, we need a working model of human emotional needs. There are several existing models in the psychological field, originating from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I adopted the following model of six emotional needs because it was adequate for my practice, easy to memorize, and allowed me to focus on application.

This model describes six emotional needs:

  • Identity – Understanding who we are as individuals, our sense of self
  • Belonging – Inclusion in relationships, groups, and teams
  • Empathy – Being understood by others and having them share in our emotions
  • Autonomy – Control over our choices and environments
  • Respect – Admiration and appreciation from others
  • Stability – Certainty about the structure and consistency of our environment

The key point is that your emotions are triggered when an emotional need is violated or validated. We can deconstruct Tom’s road rage story as an example to improve self awareness.

Tom’s Emotions Were Triggered When His Needs Were Violated

As Tom is getting ready in the morning, he’s nervous about his big presentation. He hopes that his wife, Mary, will get up to say goodbye. He has an emotional need for Empathy – he wants Mary to recognize that this is a stressful for him, and to acknowledge and share in his nervousness. When she rolls over and goes back to sleep, that need for empathy is unmet. This registers as disappointment to Tom, a mild form of the emotion Sadness. If Tom were self aware, he could say to himself, “I’m feeling sadness because my emotional need for empathy was unmet.”

Tom goes to the coffee shop for a treat but also because he has a need for Belonging. The baristas know his name and remember his drink, and Tom values the status of being a “regular.” When the barista barely recognizes him and doesn’t comment on his being dressed up, Tom doesn’t feel like part of the coffee shop club. He feels irritated, a mild form of the emotion Anger. A self aware version of Tom could say to himself, “I’m feeling anger because my emotional need for belonging is not being met.”

When he discovers he was given the wrong drink, Tom really starts to get Angry. For Tom, his style of coffee is part of his Identity – he doesn’t like those sugary sweet drinks, and he feels proud of his refined and cultured appreciation of good coffee. When he gets served the wrong drink, he feels like he’s not being acknowledged as a coffee connoisseur. Here, self aware Tom should say to himself, “I am feeling anger because my emotional need for identity was violated.” This level of self awareness about our own identities can be difficult to cultivate. It requires that we truly know ourselves, and admit that seemingly insignificant things – like the way we take our coffee – can be deep components of our identities.

Lastly, when Tom is cut off by the other driver on the freeway, his need for Respect has been violated. He experiences Fear that he could have been harmed by the reckless driver, and also Anger that the other driver would move into his space. For poor Tom, this is the tipping point, and the emotional pressure that’s been building all morning finally erupts.

If Tom had practiced to improve self awareness, he could have recognized his emotions were being triggered and chosen a different response. Tom could have self-regulated and arrived at work calm and collected to deliver an exceptional presentation. 

Naming Emotions and Triggers to Improve Emotional Intelligence

“The surprising thing about self-awareness is that just thinking about it helps you improve the skill,” write Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves in Emotional Intelligence 2.0. Consciously naming our emotions and our triggers is an effective strategy for thinking about and developing self awareness. As we grow in self awareness, we lay the foundation for self management, social awareness, and relationship management, the other components of emotional intelligence. We begin to control our emotions, instead of being controlled by them. We are able to more effectively lead others towards a common vision.

This practice is challenging. When I began trying to improve self awareness, naming my emotions and triggers was extremely uncomfortable. Interrupting a wave of emotion to think critically about my feelings was difficult, but it became easier the more that I practiced. The results are worth it, both personally and professionally. 

I’ll offer this advice for anyone beginning this practice: approach this exercise with self-compassion, not judgment, and don’t exclusively focus on the emotions you perceive as negative. Take note of your feelings when your emotional needs are validated as well as violated. Thinking, “I’m feeling happiness because my emotional need for belonging was validated,” is also effective to improve self awareness. While naming your emotions in the moment is the ultimate goal, naming them when you reflect on the past is also beneficial.

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