Deciphering the triggers: It turns out there’s a “code”

4m4jdmqq_400x400My last post (Your opportunity to be treated as badly as the men) struck a chord with more than a few women. The responses were mostly positive. The last line quoting John Wayne’s advice to Barbara Walters – “Don’t let the bastards get you down” – got this response from a former military officer and graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School:

Excellent take! In 21 years of active duty, my sole focus was on accomplishing the unit’s mission. Gender was the last thing on my mind at any given time. I never had any of these issues that the media seems so fond of focusing on.

An old friend simply said, “Go, John!” adding a few thumbs up emojis for emphasis.

It wasn’t all good news, however. One respondent agreed that my “point about women being treated as men is worthy”. Then she went on to say that she cringed at my description of the women pinning Veterans’ Day carnations on the lapels of us vets as “…past their prime but still beautiful…”   “Ouch,” she added for effect.

My first response was to apologize. I had meant it as a compliment. “I thought it [the gesture] was sweet,” I added.

“I am sharing with you so you can hear what some women, myself included, will read in code [emphasis added] that ‘past her prime’ implies that she is no longer of value and that ‘still beautiful’ equates her value had/has much to do with her appearance,” she went on.


There’s a “code”? Is it written down somewhere? Can I get a copy?

I was mystified.

“I rarely point this out because I don’t believe it’s worth the time. But I thought I would share with you because I believe that you believe in meritocracy and therefore, would want to know if you hit any pain points that would give people, women, pause,” she added when I followed up. “Yes, I promise that ‘past her prime’ is code and a trigger.”

A trigger? Well, yeah.   I remember once hearing a senior female executive say, “the problem with this place is that it’s too pale, too stale and too male.” That triggered a response in this old, white guy.

In a follow up email, she added, “I am sharing my thoughts and those of my posse…”

She has a posse?

I slumped back in my chair. “What a great friend,” thought I. How many women had stopped reading my post in the first paragraph? How would I even know I had “triggered” that response if she hadn’t pointed it out?

The focus of this blog is the corner office. As a CEO (reluctant or otherwise), one bears the responsibility of leadership. Effective communication is critical. Language and its use can be your friend or your undoing. A CEO can’t lead effectively without decoding the likely response from his or her staff.

Still, I wish I could get a copy of that code.


3 thoughts on “Deciphering the triggers: It turns out there’s a “code”

  1. Robin Noel Phillips

    Good luck deciphering “the code!” I don’t think there is one. The issue is that women are (surprise!) highly variable individuals, not a homogeneous bloc with identical goals, experiences, and dislikes. For every hard-charging career woman, there is another who enjoys life as a SAHM, and there is everything in between. Some like to “feel pretty,’ and enjoy male attention; others are offended by any hint that you even noticed that they were women, and there is everything in between.

    We would all do better to recognize others as complete human beings, but the flip side is that we would also all do better to limit our “offendedness” to truly egregious situations.


    1. There were lots of ways I could have responded to the email I received. Generally speaking, I am burned out on political correctness. However, an old white guy doesn’t get to say that to a broad audience.

      The gesture itself (a woman pinning a carnation on my lapel) was something of a throwback to an earlier era, a more romantic one. I was frankly overcome with a bit of nostalgia. It was my late mother, after all, who snapped my shoulder boards on when I was commissioned as a officer.

      In the end, I had to rein in my emotions. The blog is intended to promote my book, a book about leadership in the C-Suite. Corporate leaders, like it or not, must be aware of how people will hear their words no matter their best intentions.

      Thanks for your comment, Robin.


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