Career stallersConflict ResolutionHot ButtonsOvercome ChallengesSelf-ControlSelf-ReflectionSelf-sabotaging

Disabling Your Hot Buttons at Work

Recognizing hot buttons in others cartoon by Fortunalee.

What exactly are hot buttons?

Hot buttons are basically a trigger (events, words, or behaviours in others) that evokes a destructive reaction or behaviour within us in response to the trigger. Hot buttons can be particularly problematic as they often serve to escalate the intensity of issues. We all have hot buttons that can set us off quickly, and they are unique to each of us.

For example, imagine that you are in a meeting with several other people. The individual speaking right now, Harry, is doing so with a particularly negative and abrasive tone. Most of the individuals in the meeting are unfazed by Harry’s style, however, Kim is becoming visibly annoyed with Harry. A hot button has been triggered in Kim; we will consider possible reasons later. 

Other examples of common workplace triggering events include the following situations. 

When we:

  • Make mistakes that are visible to others
  • Take a strong view and others don’t support us
  • Realize we’ve said something offensive or inappropriate that hurt another

When a peer, customer, or supplier (amongst others):

  • Takes credit for our work as if it’s their own
  • Behaves in a belittling or demeaning manner
  • Fails to follow through on our request or instructions

When a manager or leader:

  • Is a control freak rather than an inspiring example
  • Micromanages and second-guesses us (often because of their own insecurities)
  • Expects us to work overtime or start early without fair compensation (or the courtesy of asking)

So we can see how hot buttons often add fuel to the fire by amplifying our feelings about something! It naturally leads us to wonder where hot buttons come from.

Where do hot buttons come from?

How we react to situations, behaviours or events can often be traced back to early life experiences. Why? As kids, we learn to identify threats to ourselves, and what’s more – our brain continuously looks out for them. When we come across something that triggers this threat identification, our natural fight or flight system kicks in. 

Once the fight or flight system kicks in, feelings build and can relatively quickly lead to a destructive personal response to the perceived conflict. Considering a typical pattern of responses (figure 1) once anger sets in, we realize how quickly it escalates. But, perhaps, more importantly, we see how the consequences fall back on us later through the loss of relationships or feelings of guilt (for example).

Hot button cycle for anger. copyright David Wray, 2021

Figure 1: Anger launches reactions that mirror back to us

The empowering aspect of this discussion is that hot buttons clarify our values. You may be wondering what on earth I mean. Let me clarify, hot buttons are pushed when someone does something that upsets or irritates us, and that in turn often happens because our sense of right or fairness has been violated by an individual’s behaviour.

So, the good news is that the more aware we are of our hot buttons, the more effectively we can lessen their intensity and impact on our behaviour. This occurs when we understand our hot buttons and why a particular one is a pressure point for us.

How do we identify our hot buttons?

The process starts by taking a long hard look at ourselves and doing so with brutal honesty. It is about acknowledging our unvarnished self, “the good, the bad and the ugly”. Don’t worry, you don’t need to tell anyone else what you learn, this is a reflective step to aid in our self-improvement. Armed with this information, it’s important to understand the context for triggers being set off. We can do this by asking a few questions:

  • Do I react this way to everyone who demonstrates this behaviour or just a select individual?
  • What are the circumstances within which this trigger occurs? Does it occur within groups, in certain hierarchies, or one on one?
  • How is my reaction to the behaviour impacting the situation, my relationship with others, or how I see myself?

By recognizing the how, why, when, and where patterns of our reactions we can often start to peel back the onion on why we are reacting as we are. This in turn will allow us to recognize when triggers are likely to occur in the future and then empower us to head it off before it surfaces. 

Learning to dial down hot buttons

An effective technique for dialing down hot buttons is to reframe how we see the other person’s behaviour in the first place. Returning to Harry, this means considering reasons (other than he is trying to irritate us) why he is behaving in a particular way. Could Harry be a braggart or narcissistic? Could he be insecure himself and his style is a way to cover his own insecurity? Seeing Harry in different lights opens the door to reducing the intensity of our reaction. Why? We start to feel more empathy for him, which is calming.

Beyond reframing, another quick fix for dialing down the situation is to take a break and rebalance ourselves. A few minutes to walk and get a tea, coffee, or water – the simple act of moving snaps spiraling thoughts.

Humour is another good technique to defuse tense situations. I share more about that in The Power of Humour in Everyday Life.

The key is learning to recognize the behaviour well before it gets out of control and to break the old response pattern.

Prevention is better than cure.

Desiderius Erasmus

Final Thoughts

When we manage our emotional responses, we make more conscious choices for healthy behaviours and responses when potential conflict surfaces. The choice is ours: exercise self-control or clean up the fallout from destructive reactions…

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on how you shield your hot buttons in the office.

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Fortunalee, Diagram credit: David Wray

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