Leadership Spotlight

Emotional Triggers in Decision Making

A couple of coworkers have a discussion.

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
And, watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
My father always said that, and I think I am fine.”1

-Margaret Thatcher


How many times per day do you engage in mindless dialogue? Do you follow a general conversational routine coupled with hearing but not necessarily listening, nodding but not necessarily agreeing, being polite but not really caring? Are you painfully aware of the lost time and what you should be doing instead? Habitual dialogic patterns (conversational scripts) have their time and place in our lives as we strive to manage time, talent, and priorities, but they also get us into trouble—generating conflict; escalating tensions; and confusing people, processes, and situations.

In contrast, how many times per day do you engage in mindful, intellectually stimulating dialogue? If we both shape and are shaped by our culture, what do your everyday conversational routines suggest about you or who you are becoming? Is mindfulness a mental muscle you build and strengthen or one you are allowing to atrophy?        

Mindful engagement is a choice—“conscious competence.”2 Unfortunately, usually we choose instead to take cognitive shortcuts and use our frame of reference to interpret others’ information and behaviors. We take the peripheral, rather than the central (critical) path when dialoging, as well as when deciding. We resort to programmed responses. 

Many reasons exist why we take mental shortcuts and settle for (and often prefer) programmed responses, most of which are emotionally triggered. Several triggers make up the common ones that prevent mindful decision making.

  • Reciprocation (You owe me.)
  • Consistency (We always have done it that way.)
  • Social proof (Everybody is doing it.)
  • Liking (Love me, love my ideas.)
  • Authority (Because I say so.)
  • Scarcity (Quick! Before they are all gone!)

When is the last time you fired before you aimed? Or when you took a quick and easy mental shortcut and paid the price later? Which emotional triggers were at play? These triggers keep us from being mindful; they force us onto the peripheral path. They lead to bad habits, poor decisions, and questionable credibility. Our obligation is to identify these triggers in our own and others’ decision making and to be mindful of their potential to derail us and our intent. 

Dr. Abigail Stonerock, currently an instructor in the Law Enforcement Development Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.


1 Some disagreement exists as to the origination of this quote, which Margaret Thatcher learned from her father. For additional information, see http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/10/watch-your-thoughts/.

2 William Howell, The Empathic Communicator (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1981).

3 Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2006).