UACES Facebook Leadership Lunch and Learn: Triggers Book Review by Tia Gregory
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Leadership Lunch and Learn: Triggers Book Review by Tia Gregory

by Lisa Davis - April 27, 2023

The April 2023 Leadership Lunch and Learn book review featured Triggers: Creating Behavior that Lasts—Becoming the Person You Want to Be, written by Marshall Goldsmith and reviewed by Tia Gregory, extension instructor from Mississippi State University.

Tia Gregory photo

View Recording Here

Goldsmith is known as the world’s leading executive coach. Triggers, published in 2014, is the 35th book that he has written or edited.

Behavior Changes and Triggers

Triggers is a book about adult behavioral change. The book lays a lot of groundwork about what adult behavioral change is before talking about the triggers that can affect behavior change.

We generally know the person we want to become, so why don’t we become this person? Before we can become the person we want to be, we must consider the two truths of behavioral change.

Truth #1: Meaningful behavioral change is very hard to do.

  • We can’t admit that we need to change.
  • We do not appreciate inertia’s power over us.
  • We don’t know how to execute a change.

Truth #2: No one can make us change unless we truly want to change. We have to recognize that:

  • Change has to come from within.
  • It can’t be dictated, demanded, or otherwise forced upon us.
  • Some people say they want to change, but they don’t really mean it.

Gregory said, “What makes positive, lasting behavior change so challenging—and causes most of us to give up early in the game—is that we have to do it in an imperfect world, full of triggers that pull and push us off course. So, what is a trigger?”

What is a trigger?

A trigger is…

  • Any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions.
  • People, events, circumstances.
  • Appear suddenly and unexpectedly.
  • Practically infinite in number.

According to the book, we are constantly being triggered by people, events, and circumstances that have the potential to change us. These triggers appear suddenly and unexpectedly. They can be major moments (car accident, medical diagnosis) or as minor as a paper cut. They can be pleasant, such as praise from a supervisor, or they can be counterproductive like letting a piece of cake tempt us off our diet. They can stir competitive instincts or drain us emotionally.

Where do triggers come from?


Our inner beliefs can trigger failure before it happens. They sabotage lasting change by canceling its possibility. We employ those beliefs as articles of faith to justify our inaction and then wish away the result. Goldsmith calls these belief triggers. Goldsmith details 15 belief triggers in the book, but for the sake of brevity and time, Gregory talked about the five that most resonated with her.

  • If I understand, I will do—difference between understanding and doing. Just because you understand something, doesn’t mean you will do it. Triggers confusion. I understand that eating too many sweets is bad for me, but I continue to do it anyway.
  • Today is a special day. Birthday, anniversary, day off…if we really want to change, we cannot self-exempt every time the calendar offers us a more attractive offer. Triggers inconsistency.
  • “At least I’m better than…”—We give ourselves a free pass because we’re not the worse in the world. Triggers false sense of immunity.
  • I won’t get distracted, and nothing unexpected will occur. We plan as if we live in a perfect world, and we do not consider the high probability of low-probability events. For example: a flat tire when you get ready to leave for work. Triggers unrealistic expectations.
  • I have all the time in the world. We hold two opposing beliefs simultaneously—we underestimate the amount of time it takes to do anything and we have all the time in the world to get it done. Triggers procrastination.

All of these are essentially excuses or beliefs that we use to tell ourselves that it’s okay when we fail at behavior change.


Our environment can also derail our behavior change. We think we are in sync with our environment, but actually it’s at war with us. We think we control our environment, but in fact, it controls us.

  • We should view our environment as if it were a person. This is a strategy that lets us see what we’re up against.
  • It is a nonstop triggering mechanism. Do you ever find yourself acting differently based on where you are or who you are with? You might act one way with your boss and a completely different way with your friend.
  • It can compel us to compromise our sense of right and wrong. Have you ever taken a shortcut on a task just to meet a deadline?
  • Some environments are designed to lure us into acting against our best interests. Impulse buys in checkout line.
  • It isn’t static and alters throughout the day.

Gregory said the environment that the author is most concerned with is a situational environment. Every time we enter a new situation, with its mutating who-what-when-where-and-why specifics, we are surrendering ourselves to a new environment—and putting our goals, plans, our behavioral integrity at risk. A changing environment changes us.

How many behavioral personas might you adopt in one day? This is an example of a defense contractor and several of the behavioral personas she adopts on the job each day. This doesn’t even consider her personas of wife, mom, sister, daughter, friend, etc.

“If we do not create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us. So how can we create and control our environment? By identifying and understanding our triggers.”

Remember that a trigger is any stimulus that impacts our behavior or reshapes our thoughts and actions.

There are several distinctions that help improve our understanding of how triggers influence our behavior.

  • Direct or indirect—Direct triggers are stimuli that immediately and obviously impact behavior with no intermediate steps between the triggering event and your response. For example, a child chases a ball into the street, and you slam on your brakes. Indirect triggers take a more circuitous route before influencing behavior. For example, you see a family photo from a vacation that makes you think about how fun it was, which in turn, causes you to call your mom.
  • Internal or external—Internal triggers come from thoughts or feelings that are not connected with any outside stimulus. Some people might refer to this as an “inner voice.” External triggers come from the environment. You’re cold, so you put on a sweater.
  • Conscious or unconscious—Conscious triggers require awareness. You pull your fingers back when you touch a hot surface. Unconscious triggers shape your behavior beyond your awareness. A great example of this is when people have better moods when the weather is nice and sunny rather than cold and rainy.
  • Anticipated or unexpected—Anticipated triggers are expected. You clap at the end of a performance. Unanticipated triggers take us by surprise and stimulate unfamiliar behavior.
  • Encouraging or discouraging—Encouraging triggers push us to maintain or expand what we are doing. A runner sees the finish line and it encourages him to keep running. Discouraging triggers push us to stop or reduce what we are doing. If we’re talking during a movie and someone shushes us, we realize we are disturbing people and stop talking.
  • Productive or counterproductive—Productive triggers push us toward becoming the person we want to be. Counterproductive triggers pull us away.

Next, Gregory shared the last two dimensions of triggers.

The last two dimensions of triggers (encouraging vs. discouraging and productive vs. counterproductive) express the tension between what we want and what we need. We want short-term gratification while we need long-term benefit. These are the defining conflicts of adult behavior change.

What makes it more difficult is that each of us writes the definition of what makes a trigger encouraging or productive.

For example, an option of ice cream might trigger hunger or a sweet tooth craving for some of us. For those who are lactose-intolerant or have a dairy allergy, it might trigger disgust or discomfort.

She said we also define what makes a trigger productive. We all say we want financial security. But when we get a bonus, some of us will put it in the bank, while others will spend it right away on a trip, by gambling, a shopping spree, etc.

It’s the same trigger (bonus), same goal (financial security), but different responses.

What We Want vs. What We Need

She shared that the conflict between what we want and what we need is illustrated in this matrix.

Graphic of Matrix: What we want vs. what we need

We want it and we need it. The upper right quadrant is where we’d prefer to be all the time. It is where encouraging triggers intersect with productive triggers and the short-term gratification, we want is congruent with the long-term achievement we need. These are triggers that make us try harder now, and they reinforce continuing behavior that drives us toward our goals. We want them now, and we need them later.

We want it but don’t need it. This is the combination of an encouraging trigger that is counterproductive. This is where we encounter pleasurable situations that can tempt or distract us from reaching our goals. If you’ve ever binge-watched Netflix when you should’ve been studying or sleeping, you know how an appealing distraction can trigger a self-defeating choice. You sacrificed your goals for short-term gratification.

We need it but don’t want it. The lower right quadrant contains discouraging triggers that we don’t want but that we know we need. For example, rules are discouraging because they limit us, but they exist to erase specific behaviors. We need them because obeying rules makes us do the right thing.

We don’t want it or need it. The lower left quadrant is the cross-section of both discouraging and counterproductive triggers. It includes all the situations that make us miserable—such as a toxic workplace or unhealthy neighborhood. These environments trigger unhealthy behaviors that steer us away from our goals.

We want to be on the right side of the matrix, moving forward toward our behavioral goals.

Options to Pursuing Behavior Change

Gregory shared, in conjunction with the We Want It vs. We Need It matrix, Marshall introduces the Wheel of Change model that explores two dimensions:

  1. Change vs. Keep—What do we want to get rid of in life? What do we want to keep?
  2. Positive vs. Negative—Positive-what is great in life that we want to reinforce. Negative-what do we want to get rid of?

The Wheel of Change

  • Creating Who is the new me that I want to create? How is that future person going to be different from that person in the past? What positive change do you want to create in yourself? It spans from adding to inventing. An example of this would be creating an agenda to stay on track during a meeting and end at the appropriate time.
  • Preserving This is a positive keep. What is it about myself I want to preserve? What is something I want to keep or maintain? It requires us to figure out what serves us well and discipline to refrain from abandoning it for something new and shiny, but not necessarily better. Relationship, history, tradition.
  • Accepting This is a negative keep. What is it I need to learn to accept? I’m not crazy about it, but I’m probably not going to change. It can involve prioritizing, forgiveness, or accepting environmental limitations.
  • Eliminating This is negative change. What is it in life you need to get rid of? It can be liberating and therapeutic, but it’s often done reluctantly. Examples include: smoking and a toxic friendship.

Circle of Engagement

Gregory said, “in the Circle of Engagement, we see that a trigger leads to an impulse, which leads to a behavior. Awareness provides that little bit of breathing space to help us make a better behavioral choice. Embracing awareness puts us in the best position to appreciate all the triggers the environment throws at us. When we are engaged, we recognize a trigger for what it really is and respond wisely and appropriately. Our behavior creates a trigger that itself generates more appropriate behavior from the other person. The interplay between us and our environment becomes reciprocal.”

Grraphic-Circle of Engagement

Behavior Change Tools

After laying the groundwork of what behavioral change is and how triggers work, Goldsmith introduces some tools that can help us become the person we want to be.

Tool #1: Structure

  • Imposing structure on our day helps us control our environment.
  • Structure not only increases our chance of success, it makes us more efficient at it.
  • If we provide ourselves with enough structure, we don’t need discipline. The structure provides it for us.

Structure not only increases our chance of success; it makes us more efficient at it. Goldsmith’s examples in his own life:

  1. Only wears khaki pants and a green polo to work.
  2. Pays someone to call him with his Daily Questions.
  3. Delegates all travel decisions to a travel assistant and never questions her choices.

He said, the more structure he has, the less he must worry about. Examples of this in your own life could include using a shopping list, following a recipe, using a 7-day pillbox, using an agenda in meetings, cleaning off your desk each day, etc.

Tool #2: Daily Questions

Gregory shared that for over 10 years, Goldsmith had a nightly follow-up routine where someone called him and asked him a specific set of questions, he had written for himself. His Daily Questions were a self-regulating discipline aimed at making him a happier and healthier individual. However, he explains that he and his daughter Kelly did some research on passive versus active questions. As a follow-up to that research, he conducted research studies on his own participants.

Passive vs. Active Questions

Passive Questions

  • Describe a static condition.
  • Passive questions focus on what the world needs to do to make a positive difference for you.
  • “Do you have clear goals?”

Active Questions

  • Describe or defend a course of action.
  • Active questions focus on what you can do to make a positive difference for yourself and the world.
  • “Did you do your best to set clear goals for yourself?”

Given people’s demonstrable reluctance to change at all, this study showed that active self-questioning can trigger a new way of interacting with the world. Active questions reveal where we are trying and where we are giving up. We get a sense of what we can actually change, which gives us a sense of control and responsibility.

Goldsmith’s Daily Questions

GRAPHIC-Goldsmith's Daily Questions

Here is an example of Goldsmith’s 22 questions (at time book was published). He scores himself on 1-10 scale, with 10 being best and a weekly average.

  • First six questions are the Engaging Questions he suggest for everyone.
  • Next eight questions revolve around the Wheel of Change—creating, preserving, eliminating, accepting.
  • Last eight are about health and family.

Anyone can do this to get better at almost anything. But be warned: it is tough to face the reality of our own behavior and our own level of effort everyday.

Your Daily Questions

Gregory challenged us to make a list of daily questions.

  • No correct number-they should reflect your personal objectives.
  • You can use whatever scale works for you.
  • Only considerations should be:
    • Are these items important in my life?
    • Will success on these items help me become the person that I want to be?

Then shared the author predicts that within two weeks, half will give up and stop answering the Daily Questions. Why? It is incredibly difficult for us to look in the proverbial mirror every day and face the reality that we didn’t even try to do what we claimed was most important in our lives. Therein lies the power in self-questioning. If we fall short on our goals, we either abandon the questions all together or push ourselves into action.

Tool #3: AIWATT—Am I Willing At This Time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?

AIWATT is Goldsmith’s first principle for becoming the person you want to be. It is phrased in the form of a question you should be asking yourself whenever you must choose to either engage or “let it go.”

  • Am I willing—We are taking responsibility. Do I really want to do this?
  • At this time—This situation is happening now. Reminds us that we’re operating in the present.
  • To make the investment required—This reminds us that responding to others is work. It takes time, energy, and opportunity. Is this the best use of my time?
  • To make a positive difference—Reminder that we can create a better us or a better world. If we’re not doing either, why are we getting involved?
  • On this topic—Focuses on the matter at hand.

It is a delaying mechanism we can use in the interval between a trigger and a behavior or response. Using this technique can help in small moments that can shape our reputation and make or break relationships. It is also a reminder that our environment tempts us many times a day to engage in pointless skirmishes. If you ask yourself this question and the answer is yes, go for it. If the answer is no, take a deep breath and let it go.

Tool #4: Using a Coach

She shared, all of us have two separate personas—the Planner and the Doer. We are superior planners and inferior doers. The Planner plans to change or set goals. The Doer must execute the plans or goals. However, at any given time, our environment is working against us. Other people will tempt us away from our objectives. Or we are subject to low-probability events, such as a flat tire or unexpected meeting.

At the most basic level, the Coach is a follow-up mechanism whether it’s someone we merely report our DQ scores to each evening, someone who helps keep us on task, or someone who is a full-blown advisor. The Coach reminds us of the unreliable person we become after we make our plans. The Coach meshes our inner Planner with our inner Doer and keeps us accountable.

Tool #5: Hourly Questions

Hourly Questions can help us locate ourselves in the moment.

  • Have a short-term utility and add structure.
  • Help us locate ourselves in the moment.
  • When we require a burst of discipline to restrain our behavioral impulses for a set period of time.
  • Makes us hyperaware of our behavior.

Example—one-hour meeting. Don’t want to go. Takes you away from your “real work.” You walk in in a bad mood, slouch in your chair, avoid eye contact, doodle on notepad, and only speak briefly when spoken to. Your goal was to spend the hour being miserable. And you succeeded. Now imagine that at the end of that hour, you would be asked “Did I do my best to build positive relationships?”, or “Did I do my best to be fully engaged?” How might you have acted differently in the meeting. This is the utility of hourly questions. By taking personal responsibility for your own engagement, you make a positive contribution to your company and begin creating a better you.

Goldsmith’s Challenge

  • Think about one behavior change, one triggering gesture.
  • Only criterion: You won’t feel sorry you did it.
  • It will make other people’s lives better because you are better.
  • It can be anything—as long as it’s a departure from what you’ve always done and would continue doing forever.
  • Then do it!

Additional Resources

Gregory shared the following additional resources can be found on the website:

  • Marshall Goldsmith Coaching App
  • Daily Question App-Impact Yourself Daily
  • Daily Questions Spreadsheet
  • Podcast
  • Blog

The Leadership Lunch and Learn Book Review series features leadership experts from across the south. Each presenter reviews a leadership development book. The series gives you the opportunity to hear the cliff notes version of many popular leadership development books.

Join us for future book reviews.

  • May 31, 2023 Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging authored by Sebastian Junger reviewed by Dr. Kristi Farner, University of Georgia| Click here to register for this session.