Test the Influence of Emotions on Your Performance

Written by:

Have you noticed that your emotional state has a huge influence on how sharp you are? You can test this for yourself.

First think about something that makes you angry or frustrated. Is there a person at work who really irritates you, a social issue that you find frustrating, or a personal problem that you’re struggling to solve? Let yourself feel the negative emotion of it, without getting wrapped up in the story line.

Now time yourself on this exercise (use the stopwatch function on your smart phone): in your head, subtract the number 13 from the number 101 repeatedly until the result is below zero.

Now let’s change your emotional state. Think of something that makes you feel sincerely appreciative. It can be a person, a pet, or perhaps a place. Make sure to pick something that has no negative emotions associated with it. Now imagine that you’re breathing into your heart. We all know that we breathe into our lungs, but focus on the area of your heart while breathing in slowly and gently to a count of five, then breathe out to a count of five. As you get into the rhythm of this, think about the thing that makes you feel appreciative. Do this for about a minute, or about five or six breath cycles.

Now time yourself on the same exercise, except subtract 13 from 102 repeatedly until the result is below zero. Compare your times from the two exercises.

Most people have a significantly faster time when in a positive, uplifted frame of mind. In fact, scientifically rigorous experiments have measured results in similar tests that required mental focus and attention. Participants tested their cognitive performance while in a naturally-occurring emotional state, then the experimental group activated positive, heartfelt emotions while the control group made no such change. They all then performed similar tests. The experimental group significantly improved their cognitive performance, whereas the control group showed no change in performance. In addition, there was a significant relationship between the degree of heartfelt positivity, which was measured by a heart wave monitor, and cognitive performance that held across all subjects and conditions.

Positive, heartfelt emotions can literally make you sharper. They broaden your scope of perception so you’re able to take in more information and see possibilities that others miss. They help you remember more details, analyze the possibilities with optimal attention, and use the sharpest discernment to arrive at the best decisions. What if you could get your entire business organization to be sharper in this way?

A 2010 IBM survey of over 1500 global CEO’s concludes that these are the qualities that organizations need to succeed into the future. As the business world becomes increasingly complex and fast-paced, employees are increasingly challenged to find local, instant solutions that work. Positive, heartfelt emotions are the key to thriving in these environments. This works because the heart has such a huge influence on the brain.

Good leaders already know the importance of emotions on employee performance. That’s why they use a variety of methods to help employees reach a more positive emotional state, such as showing employees appreciation and exposing them to stress reduction techniques. We know intuitively that happy employees are more productive. But the premier emotional state is more specific than just happy. The key is to positively activate the heart.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


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.
  Related Articles


  1. Peter Demarest  September 12, 2012

    Great insight, Jackie. One of the reasons, we have found, that this is true is that in a positive emotional state, we tend to see a task and even challenges as opportunities (to add value) rather than as threats (of a loss of value).

    When the mind-brain interprets something as a threat, it tends to shut down it’s cognitive systems and go into a systemic defensive/protective mode (i.e., amygdala hijack) in an attempt to avoid the pain of lost value. But when it perceives an opportunity, it activates cognition and engages in the process of creating a value-adding (valuegenic) intrinsic experience. It literally feels good, because the brain releases “feel-good” (heart-felt) neurochemicals.

    The big question is, how do you CAUSE your brain to make the shift (activate the heart)? One way is to shift your perspective from how do I protect myself to how do I create greater net value.

  2. Emma McDonagh  September 12, 2012

    Do you think this is why the far eastern countries utilise group exercise such as tai chi to improve emotional state and so improve business?
    I think supporting organisations, especially large corporations, to see the human & spirit inside the business suit would bring about huge global change and an improvement to all our lives.. I never ever hear of anyone who says “I feel relaxed and recharged after my weekend, I can’t wait to get my hands on that new project and spend 50 hours this week devoting myself to it” I am not saying that that person does not exist, just that its not common. Perhaps we need a new blueprint as to how to support employees – and is this a heart-centred business? Maybe this is the paradigm shift they are all talking about 😉

    love Emma x

  3. Jackie Barretta  September 12, 2012

    Emma, yes, I think some companies are waking up to the benefits of creating a more uplifting emotional environment. Definitely there are many companies trying to help employees reduce stress, primarily for health reasons, but also for performance. However, I think most leaders don’t understand the importance of heartfelt emotions on performance. To me, that’s the big aha!

  4. Irene O'Connor  September 20, 2012

    This is a fantastic discussion to keep on pondering and contemplating about. The fields of health and business are both finding you can not escape the power and effect of emotions. I definitely agree with Peter Demarest that the business question is how do you “CAUSE” the shift. Ironically it does start with the mind. Training the mind to stop, reflect and re-interpret danger is the beginning. Reaction is where all gets lost and false definitions are able to take hold. The false definitions generally come from past experiences. These have been so hard-wired, that it has been physically shown the brain gets ruts. The neural pathways are so connected to old behaviors and interpretations. Yet in business and in health the practice of dropping back and drawing inward to an inner space of reflection has shown great benefits.

  5. Pamela Brooks  September 27, 2012

    I think there is a great deal of work today that shows the impact of mirror neurons in our emotional reaction to people and situations outside of us. Yes we have control of our conscious thoughts, or I should say we can learn to have better control of our conscious thoughts. However, in the case of mirror neurons, they react to what we see without us controlling them. They are what allow us to pick up on the emotional state of others hen we communicate with them. While our emotional state can control our processing ability, the emotional state of those around us can greatly affect our emotional state without us being aware of it.

    Every hang out with a depressed person for a while and discover at the end that you start feeling the same way… mirror neurons are at work. Every love to hang out with some people because they are always happy and fun to be around and when your with them you feel the happiness… mirror neurons at work. The sad part today is they have discovered that the mirror neurons in people with autism do not function as they should and this is why autistic people struggle with personal communication with others, their brain cannot read the difference between someone that is angry or frustrated.

    Another case where mirror neurons at work can work against us is when we detect an emotional state in another person, but they deny it. It creates a conflict within us, because we actually are feeling their emotional state and will often cause our brain to miss label the emotion sometimes in a negative way, without consciously thinking about what we are doing. David Rock in his book, Your Brain at Work, gives a classic example of this at a business meeting. One person is attempting to pitch a couple of people for a contract and has a horrible time in traffic attempting to get to the meeting and shows up very stressed and even a little sweaty. They ask him if everything is ok and he says he is fine. The other people are picking up on his anxiety from the traffic and because he didn’t identify it, they now create a negative evaluation of his state subconsciously… wow he must be really nervous maybe he is not prepared, or maybe he is not very confident about his skills. So as the meeting progresses, they respond to him based on their negative evaluation, which then creates a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    So if you want to engage our brain in more positive ways: hang out with positive people, watch positive movies or clips, listen to babies laugh etc. There are actually places around the world that have formed Laugh therapy groups, where people will meet for 20 to 30 minutes at the beginning of the day just to laugh. Laughing alone can create more “feel-good” endorphins then just attempting to have a positive thought. Being around others that can create a good laugh will also release more “feel-good” endorphins than just a positive thought. I actually got to try this out at workshop this past summer and found it to be awkward at first, but absolutely a great time by the end. They are even using laugh clinics in prisons in India now and have found it has reduced the violence and difficult issues within the prisons.

    If you don’t have the ability to create a good laugh, the work by Dr. Ekman on the face also indicates that just forcing yourself to smile can change your state. So go stand in front of the mirror and smile at yourself for a few minutes today!

  6. Jackie Barretta  September 27, 2012

    Pamela, that is great insight! Thank you for the David Rock and Patch Adams material.

    I wonder if you (or anyone else) is familiar with the work on heartfelt emotions, where it is reported that they in particular facilitate cognitive performance? So laughter and happy thoughts can make us feel happy, but when we activate the heart thru emotions such as appreciation and compassion, we become especially sharp. I read a lot of research from HeartMath that states this. Any insight on this?

  7. Pamela Brooks  September 27, 2012

    I have not read the research on HeartMath, I will have to look into that. However, several of different brain books that I have been through that give activities to improve your mental state suggest things as spending the last 10 minutes before you go to bed thinking about all of the things you appreciate in your world. There is also work that I have read about “Taming Your Gremlins” that yelp you become more aware of your internal dialog and how to make it more positive.

    There is also the work on Appreciative Inquiry with groups to help create a more positive mindset when problem solving, and reduce tension.



Add a Comment