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  • Kathleen Phelps

Leading When Your Buttons Are Pushed

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”


One of the joys of being in the world is the interactions we have with other people. We form deep relationships, we learn and grow, we find people with whom we resonate on a deep level. We feel seen, understood, and validated.

Other times we don’t. We have parallel conversations that we find incredibly frustrating. We communicate in the ways that have always worked for us, and yet somehow, certain people don’t hear us. When we are not particularly invested in the relationship, this can be okay. Other times it can feel alienating and isolating. And at certain times, with certain people, it can push all of our buttons.

I was speaking with the CEO of a well-funded tech company recently about the challenges she is facing in this quickly growing business. The biggest issues and obstacles for the firm are not around market penetration, innovation, or talent management. The biggest concern for this CEO is her relationship with the board that appointed her.

How did this happen? She gets triggered.

When our buttons are pushed, several things are likely occurring. First, our values or motivators are being challenged in some way (almost always unbeknownst to the challenger), and second, we are responding with a ‘derailing’ behavior like becoming more argumentative or skeptical, acting passive aggressively, or withdrawing altogether.

We may also start to actually look for those behaviors that annoy or antagonize us. Psychology Today defines a ‘confirmation bias’ as “a type of cognitive bias that involves favoring information that confirms previously existing beliefs or biases.”

If we decided, for example, that Jose, a board member, is overly focused on short term profits at the expense of longer term investment, or that he doesn’t understand changing industry dynamics, once he pushes one of our buttons, everything he says will be filtered through this bias. We will look for evidence to support our hypotheses – and without a doubt we will find it.

The remedy? Making peace not with who they are, but with who you are. And owning it. You’ve got to know your own buttons.

If we have high values and motivators around power and recognition, we could interpret Jose’s questions about short term profits as an attempt to control, or that he does not acknowledge all of the other positive business developments. There is skill in developing the inner guidance and awareness to know that we are making an interpretation that is not necessarily the truth.

The internet CEO is learning to understand how and why her buttons get pushed. As she begins to notice that she has been activated–and is able to recognize it for the primal, emotional response that it is–she is free. Alternative responses and options become available. She may still tell one of the board members to ‘get lost,’ (using more palatable language), but if she does, she will know that she is coming from a considered and thoughtful place. Deliberate, not reactive.

I read recently that that trying to get someone to believe what you believe is “vibrationally impossible.” I think that is true. What we can do however, is understand what we believe, what matters to us… and lead from there.

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