Can Employees Feel What You Are Thinking?

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I think we would all acknowledge that people perform better when they’re feeling positive, so as leaders we naturally want our groups and organizations to be positive environments. However, most leaders are not aware of the factors that influence the positivity of environments. We think we’re controlling environments when we monitor what’s said and done, but experimentation tells us that thoughts themselves become pervasive and set the tone in an environment.

A Revealing Experiment

Consider this exercise that I often conduct during presentations and seminars. I use a form of kinesthetic testing, the basic arm-pull-down test, to demonstrate that the thoughts of a group have a physical effect on individuals. I ask for two volunteers, a tester and subject, where the tester exerts a downward force on the subject’s extended arm, while the subject tries to resist the efforts of the tester by keeping his arm parallel to the floor.

To get everyone familiar with the experiment, I tell the subject that he has just received a prestigious customer satisfaction award from a large customer, as well as a corresponding big raise and promotion. I then instruct the tester to exert a downward force on the subject’s extended arm. The arm invariably remains strong with little movement. I then tell the subject that he has just lost a large client and his boss is evaluating whether he’ll need to make some staff reductions as a result. I then instruct the tester to exert a downward force on the subject’s arm. Without fail, the arm moves down substantially. So far
this is nothing revolutionary, but pay attention to what happens next.

I then tell the audience that when I give them a thumbs-up signal, they will all think about the best day they ever had at work, reliving the details and feeling it in their body.  Conversely, they’re instructed to think about the worst day they ever had at work when I give them a thumbs-down signal. I then tell the tester and the subject to turn their backs to the audience. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I then lead a series of tests where I silently flash a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to the audience, which the tester and subject cannot see it. I wait fifteen seconds while the audience does their thinking and feeling, and then I ask the tester to perform the arm-pull-down test. Consistently, the subject’s arm stays stationary when I have flashed a thumbs-up and it moves significantly when I have flashed the thumbs-down.

This is not a controlled scientific experiment, but it’s convincing and it’s consistent with what new science tells us about our connectedness. The thoughts of the audience create a physical effect on the subject, which demonstrates that we connect with each other in ways other than physical, or in other words, we are not as separate as we have believed.

How does this discovery help us lead?

It’s commonly acknowledged that positive environments are conducive to higher performance. Among other things, positivity in an environment helps people think more clearly and doesn’t waste the energy that negative emotions demand. Conventionally, we get people to feel more positive by taking action such as showing appreciation for their work or inspiring them to be of service to customers. Now we see there are others factors that must be considered in creating a positive environment.

First, we must become more careful with our own thoughts. Consider what this experiment tells us about the impact we have on an employee or group when we harbor fears of them failing, or when we allow our minds to be overrun with anxiety. We may think there’s no harm in our thoughts, as long as we control what we say and do, but this experiment tells us otherwise.

We also must become more attentive to the thoughts that are pervasive in our organizations. We need to detect and control the thought energy of our organizations as diligently as we measure and control the performance outcomes. This has implications to the criteria we use for hiring and promoting, as well as the priorities we choose to address.

We’ve all experienced negative people who can be among our best performers. We generally tolerate their negativity until and unless they say or do something that is harmful to the group. However, now we see that their mere presence has a detrimental impact to the organization.

In general, this knowledge demands that we become more cognizant of group energy, including how it’s generated and its impact on performance. Most leaders are currently unaware that thoughts alone can become pervasive and affect the entire organization, either positively or negatively.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
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  1. George Tomko  October 18, 2011

    Very interesting demonstration. I certainly believe in a “vibe” or that people can pick up “tension in the air”. I also see how something could work in a group setting where people are so close together. The non-verbal communication cues would be all around and would potentially signal some of the positivity or negativity that you speak of.

    Given that many organizations are virtual or partially virtual, I wonder if the same transmission of energy comes through the PC, video and audio conferences and chat boxes, etc.?

  2. Jackie Barretta  October 18, 2011

    George, I believe that the “vibe” can instantly transcend any distance of space and is therefore shared even by virtual teams. I can’t explain scientifically how this happens, but my experience is that it does happen.

  3. Maegan Prentice  October 18, 2011

    I am an OT by training, a healer by accident. I have also seen a strong connection between thoughts and feelings. A simple case in point – a normally strong energetic client showed up having difficulties climbing steps. We had be looking at issues of appreciated so we did a simple test of the quadriceps muscle while he contemplated being appreciated. He was able to straighten his leg against gravity but could not maintain a contraction against the slightest pressure. We then had him contemplate not being appreciated. He was able to sustain a strong contraction. We repeated this again partially because he was amazed. What followed was a method of detaching the body from the concept. He walked out of the office with no further difficulty.
    The problem here, as you have certainly noticed, was that contemplating the absence of a positive resulted in an improvement in strength.
    Over time I found it effect to “test” opposite concepts (accepted/rejected….) and the absence of (not accepted/not rejected).

  4. Karen Hayhurst  October 18, 2011

    Excellent question…yes, yes they can & I think that this thought transference is becoming faster and stronger too. If we consider the Universe as mental containing levels of consciousness then it makes sense that we attract thoughts of the same level we are at & of course also those people…the mirror reflection.

  5. Ronald Cooke  October 18, 2011

    Yes. That is one of the theme’s of my novel.
    Good sales people develop a natural ability to “sense” human thoughts and reaction. Good executives typically have a very good feel for human emotion and thoughts.
    The name of my novel is The Angels’ Footpath. It is available from Amazon.

  6. Karen Hayhurst  October 18, 2011

    Teaching is also an intuitive dance. I wonder how often we have taken our foundational sense for granted only to become aware of mental energies when we realize how lost we are other people’s worlds. Confidence is the optimal grounder – and we must be aware of the war of wills and not flip to the opposite pole, arrogance, which is an energy vampirism game position.

  7. Andre Van Doorn  October 18, 2011

    Hi Jackie,
    Why making it so complicated.
    John Miles used to sing: Music was my first love…..
    And indeed, music is one of the platforms to share feelings of thoughts, through
    ancient of time.
    Managers often forget that they lead some kind of orchestra and it needs specific
    “fingerspitzengefühl” to conduct it in such a manner, that the orchestra produces
    beloved music. But also be aware of the influence of the audience.
    As we all know, music can influence our behaviour: think of the supermarkets,
    music to share with your beloved, music to get into transcendental condition.
    Cheers to you,

  8. Joe Nunziata  October 18, 2011

    Everyone feels your energy. When we speak of “company culture” we are really speaking about “company energy.” I get a feeling from a company the minute I walk in the door.

    See more and receive some great free info at

  9. Hans-Ueli Schlumpf  October 18, 2011

    Great insights, Jackie, thanks for sharing!

    Not only people are connect to each other on a subatomic, subconcious level, in fact, everything is connected to everything – one source of this insight is the ageold zen tradition, and it’s just now being discovered by modern quantum physics. Good that modern science is finally able to proof it, this will help this awareness to be accepted by a wider audience. And it certainly bears the potential to revolutionize how we think about leadership!

    Yet, the fact that this is still only our “thinking”, and that the magnetic field of our feelings and our heart have a multiple potential of our mind’s power, could definitely blow some leaders’ brains. So, to think positive will be a good first step, the true challenge will be to authentically feel positive from the bottom of our heart!

    There are many effective ways to practice this, and it certainly will help us to create the better future that humanity in many parts of our planet is longing for.

  10. William Ottley  October 19, 2011

    YES! I’m what people would call an Empath. I spent years trying to work within the “corporate structure”, and have found my nitch working for smaller creative companies, as a result because i’m an empath. I am aware of peoples energies that are all around them. energy doesn’t lie. I’ve always had problems with people in the large corporate environment, because of all the lying, backstabbing, insecurities, job protectionism, etc. All that negativity has always weighed me down and exhausted me at the end of the day. when people are happy, the energy around them are positive. When they are sad/negative their energies match. You can call it “feeling” but really, its just expanded awareness of the environment you are in at the moment. The best way i explain it to be is like this: “have you ever gone into a meeting and you KNEW that everyone was in a bad mood”? or “the tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife?”

  11. Shoaib Oosman  October 19, 2011

    Jackie thanks for sharing this – I think the simplest prrof of the fact that there is a subconscious connectedness that we do not fully understand is when we know if someone is staring at us even when we cant see them.

  12. Scott Kenney  October 19, 2011

    Without question employees can feel what a leader is thinking. Even more most of the employees will shortly follow suit of the behavior, or mood, of a leader. I have always been as open with my employees as possible letting them know what I may be concerned about. By doing so I have found that the rumors that always float around are less of the doom a gloom sort. If the leader is withdrawn the employees will feel abandoned and will begin to worry about things that may not be at all factual. By letting employees know what the leader is concerned about it will put things in perceptive. I have found that by letting my employees know as much about what is on my mind, the employees will feel open to letting me know what their concerns are.

    Of course there are always times when a leader is concerned with something that he or she cannot share and these are the times when a leader must be more visible with their employees. At the same time people will see right through a lie or an attempt to cover something up. During these times I stay open with my employees, and if asked I will let them know that there is something going on that they do not need to worry about and I will let them know as soon as I can. Most people understand this type of statement, but even this will only work if you, as the leader, have a track record of being open and honest with your employees.

  13. Elaine Correia  October 21, 2011

    I agree with what you said in your article. As a healer and coach, I have become very aware that it is my energy, more that anything else I say or do, that influences a person and can nudge them into a place of happiness, relaxation or whatever they seek. I feel it is my responsibility be aware of what I am transmitting to others.

  14. Michael Cushman  October 21, 2011

    Absolutely! What leaders think and feel about others, gets transmitted and interpreted. So be mindful.

    Thanks for sharing Jackie.

    As for the “experiment” with the audience, I experienced it first hand. I was that person on stage with my back to the audience. It was amazing!. My arm was strong or weak exactly in tune with the audience’s state.

    And you are right, it’s not a scientific experiment. If you do the same exercise, in a double blind, if falls apart. I know because I’ve tested it. A decade ago, I worked for a personal development seminar company that did that exercise. I was surprised that the instructors actually believed that the thoughts of the audience themselves were being sent and read.

    I’ll admit, when you do it live, it’s easy to get sucked into the illusion.

    One could write a book about all the aspects of this experiment and what is says about humans. Its rich with illustrations of how the brain works.

    A good read is Hans, the horse that can count.

    Language is a relatively new development in evolution. For 10s of millions of years, all group animals (that includes us), have sent, received and interpreted signals nonverbally. Body movements, touch, and vocal tones are interpreted by the same brain area, as we guess the mood, feelings and intentions of others. Not only is it useful for social survival, it’s important in physical survival. Is that lion looking at me as prey or as a threat? Which deer is distracted and not noticing me? Is that dog friendly or dangerous?

    All group animals function beautifully sending and interpreting signals, in a fully intact non-conscious system, that has nothing to do with symbolic processing of language. We can subtly detect changes in breathing, pressure, vocal tones, blink rates.

    In everyday life, just like on stage, there are many, many signals sent and interpreted that we are unaware of.

    The main point is so powerful as Jackie states: leaders need to be mindful that negative attitudes and beliefs leak out, and people respond to them unconsciously. Much of how we feel about ourselves, we pick up from the state of others. We are simultaneously “at cause” and “at effect” of our mood and the mood of others when in a group. And, we are consciously clueless of this power.

    Leadership is far more nonverbal, than verbal.

  15. Jackie Barretta  October 21, 2011

    Michael, thanks for your insightful comment! I want to make sure I’m clear on what you’re saying about how emotions and attitudes are shared. Are you suggesting we pick up on them thru a different part of the brain, not the part that deals with rational thinking? So perhaps we sense them thru our Reptile Brain (inner brain) rather than our Neocortex? If so, this is similar to my understanding.

  16. Michael Cushman  October 21, 2011

    Thanks Jackie. Yes, the intentions of others are processed, as far as I know, in several areas of the brain, not related to logic. We know so little really about the brain, but we are learning fast. I think it’s fair to say the Neocortex is a symbolic processor and our older brain is a pattern matching machine.

    There are different things going on in the test/experiment you do on stage. Could be empathetic connections. Could be Intentional interpretations plus the motivation to please and fit in socially. Empathy is different fromm determining intention, but inside the brain there’s overlap.

    According to some research, inferring the intentions of other people from their actions recruits the inferior fronto-parietal action observation network as well as a putative social network that includes the posterior superior temporal sulcus (STS).

    Empathy is connected to mirror neurons, and the evaluation of intention. If we see someone being punished for doing something horrible, we tend not to feel empathy (although women might, men usually don’t).

    In general, we take in sensory information, do pattern matching (not symbolic processing), we mimic those sounds, postures, behaviors within ourselves, and then “feel” what others feel. And at the same time, we are determining intent (not logically), and that interacts with our mirroring and connection.

    However, there is an exception. If we can’t related to another, for example, they don’t have legs and we do, then we do bring the logical part of our brain to help construct what that must be like in order to feel empathy.

    Every part of the brain is connected to every other part, so there’s always some interaction, but it’s fair to say that our older brain is genius at picking up the moods and intentions of others, and often we absorb them, without thinking about it.

    If the person next to us is suddenly frightened, we become frightened too without understanding why he or she is frightened. This is a good thing, when running for your life in the next couple of seconds is going to keep you alive. And, this is how mass hysteria and mob mentality happen. They are contagious states of mind below our awareness.

  17. Kelly Pratt  November 2, 2011

    I completely agree! Martha Beck, from whom I received my coaching certification, uses the “arm test” and, as you said, it never fails! Taking it a step further to how our thoughts can affect us physically… i always start my coaching relationship with a little visualization test – have anyone close their eyes and visualize sucking on a lemon slice – 100% of peoples’ mouths water! Thoughts have power!

  18. David Evans  November 2, 2011

    Hi Jackie,
    My own belief, and it’s a strong one, is that lots of people know what we’re thinking, even though we may not be verbally saying it. The reason is that we communicate on several levels, that we’re often not aware of. And conversely, we’re picking up lots of things that aren’t being explicitly stated. I do a lot of work in the field of conflict resolution, and I’m acutely aware that a huge amount of information is transmitted non-verbally. But it you’re aware of this fact, you can use it to a huge advantage.

  19. Dineke Kleyn  November 2, 2011

    I found it an interesting article. I have done some testing myself(being tested) but always for the physical reason, At least that’s what I understood that time though)
    Yes I think some people can feel what we think, often it is while people actually can see your expressions, but blind people can sense far more energies than people who can actually see.
    I agree also that the attitude of a speaker can make or break. With attitude I mean inner thoughts, because it is really hard to hide you real feelings or feel lousy, but express a happy feeling.

  20. Martin W. Oliver PhD  November 2, 2011

    Yes and no. In the organization development of a company, we notice that employees, as triune (3 part) being have the ability to not only be perceptive to the 5 physical sense realm, but as a human spirit they/we are sensitive to atmospheric changes, i.e. strife, depression, fear, etc. The receptivity of humans largely depends upon their focus. For example some people are body focused, that is they have made a decision to be receptive to and only allow in, information that is related to this material world. Other people are very sensitive to the mental realm, the emotional realm, and the spiritual realm.

    So can employees feel what your thinking, yes some can? That doesn’t mean of course that our minds, and the heart located in our spirit is an open book for everyone to read. Remember that hate is a force much like electricity. It flows; it has power… and of course so does love. So as we engage in organization development of a company we need to keep in mind that our attitudes and willful choices do send our tangible force whether for good or evil to hurt. We make the choice. Finally, it is always possible for people to misinterpret what is around them, i.e. some will always see the glass half-full, at least until they are transformed in their thinking and believing.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment. Martin W. Oliver PhD.

  21. Dr. Katie Garnett  November 6, 2011

    Hi Jackie – great article and yes I think we have all had our own subjective experiences of knowing (feeling) what others are thinking and having others do the same with us. We know from quantum physics that we are all entangled and there is no true ‘space’ between us – we are truly one large organism. But besides the science most of know our parents were mind-readers :), and as a psychologist I know that in marriage counseling – the majority of couples knew when one of them was ‘cheating’ well before they consciously acknowledged it. And how many of us have had the sense that someone was close by, or watching us across a crowded room. We like to think our thoughts are private but we are telegraphing our feelings about others all the time. Blessings, Katie

  22. Karen Hayhurst  November 6, 2011

    Yes not only can we hear what other’s are thinking – when we are ungrounded we may start taking on what another is thinking…the Universe is Mental; know who you are.

  23. Vincent Vanderbent  November 7, 2011

    Even if they are not aware of it….yes, I’m convinced that they feel what I am thinking and that feeling influences their perception of me and their subsequent actions, imho.

  24. Rashmi Sahni  November 7, 2011

    No matter how much we try to hide this trait of ourselves but we feel it. Avoidance in the situation can be a best strategy but we don’t remain ourselves. I guess feelers are most miserable people as well beause corporate world doesn’t run that way and they need to learn to control their expressions and reactions. We have no control on things around us but my experience says that there is no point in getting involved and taking avoidable stress. Lately, changing my attitude to be an observer and just do what I’m ought to do regardless of any turbulance around me has brought much required peace inside me.

  25. Tam I Am Veilleux  November 9, 2011

    At a recent seminar I attended the facilitator asked three people to sit in the middle of the room. She blindfolded all three and then held up sign directing the audience to think about certain things such as a roller coaster ride and then being at a beach and then hanging off a mountains cliff.

    The three people then had the blindfolds removed and were asked what, if anything, the felt or received. The results were STUNNING> there was an 80% accuracy rate of them picking up vibes from the thoughts of the audience members.

    What was fascinating about the blindfolded people was their results. Some reported feeling the wind through their hair, others felt like crying while on the roller coaster. While at the beach some thought they heard wave while others felt the warmth of the sun. When there was a random thought provider from the audience who was annoyed by an insect at the beach one reciever said she had a moment of being angry. So fascinating!!!

    How we apply this to our daily lives could be truly monumental. It makes me want to reserve judgement even more. It makes me want to pray harder. It makes me want to be a better person in every way.

    You can even do the same thing using a pendulum from the front of the room. Ask people to send love and watch it swing, ask people to think hateful thing and watch as the pendulum stops.

    Thanks for the share!


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