How Controlling Your Emotional Responses Can Improve Your Performance at Work

Excerpt from “Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership” by Dr. Alan Watkins (Kogan Page, 2014).

In my book, “Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership,” I explore each part of the “iceberg” (see graphic at left) in some detail, revealing the scientific evidence and providing guidance on how anyone can become more coherent and be smarter, healthier, and happier.

Performance in any situation, whether at work, in relationships, or in sporting endeavours, is driven by our behavior, but why do people behave the way they do? If you really want to improve performance, you need to understand exactly what is driving behavior. Too often HR interventions start and end at behavior. You are told in your appraisal to do more of one thing and less of another, but without understanding what is driving that behavior, it is almost impossible to achieve lasting change and better performance.

Our behavior is driven by what we think. If you think that the start of this article is boring, you’re unlikely to read it. You’re behavior (reading) will be driven by what you think. Even if you learn to control how you think, that may still not be enough to improve performance. This is because what you think is determined by what you feel. If you want to change what someone is thinking, you have to change what they are feeling.

Even more fundamental to our performance than thinking or feeling is our raw emotion. You have to change the emotion, to change the feeling, to change the thinking to ultimately change how you behave. Finally, beyond emotion, we get to the very heart of the matter (if you’ll excuse the pun). We get to our physiology. If you want to be brilliant every day and achieve higher levels of performance, it is essential to go much deeper than behavior and get right down to our physiology.

Physiological data signals occur inside our body 24 hours a day, seven days a week. An emotion is a composite of all this physiological “energy in motion,” and emotions occur every second of every day. Our heart is always beating, we’re constantly moving, we’re continually digesting, etc. Feelings are the awareness of all that energy. We may not be feeling those emotions, but they are there nonetheless. Being brilliant every day requires you to become aware of those emotions and get control over them.

Achieving control over our emotional state can start with coherence of just one physiological system, our heart, and it is largely made possible through the conscious control of your heart via your breathing. It’s not about deep breathing at all, but about breathing rhythmically and evenly through the center of your chest. You can train yourself, with the help of some simple software, to breath this way. Start by learning to create that coherent state at your desk and then move on to keeping a coherent state in any situation at work, however stressful.

Putting Emotion and Feeling Back into Business

Traditionally, emotion has been seen as something that does not belong in business. Not only is this belief wrong, it’s unhelpful and damaging to health, happiness, and performance. We may not be aware of how we’re feeling it, but our body is on the receiving end of our emotions nonetheless.

We may look calm, we may even think we are calm because we are so used to ignoring our emotional data, but the physiological signals of anger are still firing internally, and it is this mismanaged emotion that is the superhighway to disease. Heart disease and cancer alone account for about two-thirds of all premature death, and there is now robust scientific evidence that mismanaged emotions are central to both.

Not only that, but when our body acts in response to a perceived “danger”—that could just be a stressful meeting—we can experience “brain shutdown.” Most of us have experienced that moment when our mind has gone blank under pressure. That happens because we haven’t mastered our physiological and emotional coherence.

Emotional coherence begins with a fundamental awareness of our emotional state. This requires us to “tune in” to our body and how we are feeling. There are around 34,000 distinguishable emotions, but most people can only name a dozen or so. For example, the emotion we feel when we say we are stressed can vary; some feel helpless, others feel angry, a few feel frustrated or irritated, for yet others it may be defeat or despair.

If we start to become much more precise in our emotional literacy, then we can come up with a more effective strategy for dealing with negative emotions and creating a positive emotional state. So, how do you feel good about yourself more often? It’s perfectly possible, but it does require practice and it’s not just about positive affirmation—telling yourself to feel happier or more confident doesn’t work. Instead, you have to feel the emotion, feel the feeling, not just think the thought. For example, when you think about something positive in your life that gives you a positive feeling (or emotion), take time to consider exactly how you feel, where in your body you are feeling it, articulate the emotion—is it happiness, contentment, glee, delight? The more you practice feeling that feeling, the easier it will be to conjure up that emotion when you need it—even in the face of someone else trying to make you feel something more negative. You need to learn to control your response in whatever situation you find yourself—to become “response-able,” that is, able to respond in the way you choose.

Emotions are part of living; they are there at every moment in our lives. We cannot ignore them either at work or at home. What we can do is learn to control them and choose how we want to feel every moment of the day. This not only leads to greater happiness, it also can give us more energy, help us feel healthier, and improve our relationships and our performance.

Excerpt from “Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership” by Dr. Alan Watkins (Kogan Page, 2014). For more information, visit

Dr. Alan Watkins is CEO and founder of Complete Coherence. Both physician and neuroscientist, he has been a coach to CEOs and business leaders. He is the author of Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership.