Griggs: Triggers to stereotypes: How to manage your message

shifted nervously in the Foster City, California, lobby of VISA USA headquarters.  My interview took place in an upper manager’s office — she was rude and condescending. Stereotypes and caricatures of female managers danced in my head. I felt confused and minimized by this woman who seemed intent upon proving her superiority. When I sat silent for a long minute she asked, “Do you even want to work with us on this program?”

Honorable or hateful — triggers lead to stereotypes. You trigger a prospect with the language in your ads and the visuals of your product. As they consider buying what you offer, old tapes sit cued and ready to play in their heads — good or bad times; safe or fearful feelings; enriching or degrading interactions — the “start” button waits silently to be pressed. The tape is ready but will not play until “triggered.”

In France and Germany, there are large populations of imported workers from Arab nations and Turkey. In the 1950s and 1960s they were “imported” to do the work French and Germans wouldn’t be caught doing. As the immigrant communities bulged and jobs dwindled frictions arose. And so did the triggers that clicked stereotypes into gear. When assimilation fails each side’s tape player buttons become more worn like the coiled mechanism on a gun trigger making it easier and easier to fire.

A discerning leader knows that his or her product or protest must minimize negative triggers. Fair or not, if followers, buyers or the public get fearful images, you’ve lost. Much of it is subconscious but it’s there.

Steve Jobs’ Macintosh pride didn’t end with the eye-catching mouse and graphical user interface of 1984. The success of the first Macintosh powered Apple during Job’s departure.  Upon his return the iMac led the charge in 1998 with triggers of color, texture and shape to offer a stunning and profitable surprise in excess of expected computer functionality. Steve Jobs knew how triggers can attract. Other triggers aren’t so kind.

Juicy watermelon and fried chicken at a picnic; a slaughtered goat in a Paris housing project; a full-arm tattoo dangling from a smoke-belching F-150 truck, spark incomplete images too often filled out by stored memory. The face-covering burka on an American city street; the Confederate flag at a campsite; the presence of David Duke or Al Sharpton at a funeral invoke hard-wired stereotypes just like the Apple logo, the Nike swoosh or Amazon Prime’s ‘curved thing.”

We manage our brand message with the triggers we allow. Images matter in business and public policy. Too many shout about message purity and yet ignore visual “noise.” Others fight a bloody battle over product features and lose the marketing war when customers just don’t like it. It’s foolish to fill a message with triggers that clash with the desired end result. A clinging attachment to outdated history, tradition or grievance often works to derail lofty intentions. Someone needs to pay closer attention to triggers.

5 Positive Triggers for Leadership and Mastery

  1. Be well-rounded — Balanced people have a calming effect on others by being grounded and stable.
  2. Listen to others  Demonstrate full engagement with eye contact, silence and occasional prompts when other people speak.
  3. Show your humanity — Faults and mistakes are normal. Even contradicting yourself shows that you try new things, read and learn.
  4. Ask “honorable” questions — Dig in to other side’s interests and desires with respectful questions.
  5. Spotlight love (esp. guys) — Lower your armor and show that you love something (anything). Others will respond.

In that manager’s office many years ago, my brain locked onto unfair conclusions women have had to fight for decades. I am 100% sure that VISA manager deliberately tried to make me feel less of myself. Her message, not her gender, was the issue. She did things that made me feel bad. She said things that nearly made me think I deserved less remuneration for my skills. It had nothing to do with other female managers — but the triggers whispered a different story.

I designed and delivered their managing change course. Along the way I got a jaw-dropping tour of the control room with bright screens tracking every VISA credit card transaction throughout the world. I never saw her again during my delivery or after. Someone else gave me the tour.

Rick Griggs is a former Intel Corp. training manager and inventor of the rolestorming creativity tool. He runs the 10-month Leadership Mastery Academy. rick.griggs83@gmail.com or 970-690-7327.