Article: Tap the power of emotion as a leader

Learn 9 ways leaders can generate positive emotions for themselves and others. 

9 Ways to Create a Positive Limbic System Boost

By Steve Swavely, Ph.D.

Great leaders share two traits in common: They feel good about themselves, which is necessary for them to be effective leaders, and they also make their colleagues feel good, which is necessary for them to be effective employees.

A key component of your ability to generate positive emotions for yourself and within others is the limbic system, a network of several small structures hidden deep inside the brain.

Thanks to advances in brain imaging technology during the last several decades, scientists have been able to watch the human brain in action and understand how a person’s thoughts and beliefs trigger the limbic system to generate positive emotions like joy and gratitude. As you might guess, your limbic system is also where negative emotions like frustration and anger are triggered. 

Let’s look at an example

When your colleague Mike misses the deadline on an important project, how you decide to respond to his failure—whether you’re calm and collected, or you’re upset and yelling at Mike in front of his coworkers—depends entirely on how you think about Mike’s failure.

If you take Mike’s failure as a learning opportunity, for instance, your limbic system will generate positive emotions. If you regard Mike’s blown deadline as a colossal mistake, your limbic system will generate an array of negative emotions that may well ruin your day and Mike’s.

In this article, I’ll focus on positive limbic system boosts from two perspectives:

  • First, how you can use your own limbic system to amplify the positive
  • Second, how you can create a work environment in which your employees are likely to behave in ways that produce positive emotions from their limbic systems

Your own emotions: Positive limbic system boosts

As a leader, you have to manage yourself first. After all, you’re much more effective at leading others if you’re in a positive state of mind.

Here are nine ways you can give yourself and your employees a limbic system boost.

Positive limbic system boost idea 1: Keep a gratitude journal.

Giving thanks for the small things in life positively affects your state of mind and raises your level of happiness. That’s why we encourage CEOs, executives and other senior leaders in our Mastering Leadership Dynamics™ program to keep a daily gratitude journal, writing down two or three things for which they are thankful. We urge them to recognize the little things, such as an easy morning commute or a colleague’s act of kindness.

Neuropsychology research shows that when you acknowledge things for which you are grateful, it triggers a positive burst of emotions via your limbic system. Also, once you start keeping a gratitude journal, you’re primed to look for and recognize the good things that are occurring in your life—and that helps keep you in a positive state of mind.

Positive limbic system boost idea 2: Treat mistakes as learning opportunities.

Things go wrong at work. It’s inevitable. But, by approaching the situation as an occasion to learn, you can minimize the impact of a coworker’s failure from sending your limbic system into a negative emotional tailspin.

Instead of immediately fixating on what went wrong, ask yourself questions like “What’s the growth opportunity here?” or “What lessons can I learn?”

Neuroscience studies have demonstrated that when you move from a negative way of thinking to a positive way of thinking, your neural activity adjusts, and your neurochemistry changes accordingly. So, taking the time to note what lessons you can learn from a mistake puts you in a positive state of mind, helping you to tackle the problem in a constructive manner.

Positive limbic system boost idea 3: Create genuine, positive relationships.

Connecting with other people—whether they are family, coworkers or casual acquaintances—can give your emotions a pleasant lift. At work, when something threatens to sour your mood, you can avoid this occurrence from hijacking your emotions: Remove yourself from the situation and take a moment or two to engage with someone you have a positive connection with and respect. It’ll refresh your mindset and, after the conversation or the flurry of text messages, allow you to revisit the situation with a more positive mindset.

Positive limbic system boost idea 4: Exercise regularly.

One guaranteed way to pump up your mood is regular exercise. As I noted in my recent article suggesting six ideas for New Year’s resolutions, exercise produces a double positive effect: It rids your body of the hormones that cause feelings of stress and also creates the neurochemicals that improve your mood as well as build new synapses and brain cells. 

Positive limbic system boost idea 5: Help others.

Think about the last time you did something nice for someone else. Remember how it made you feel? Intentionally doing things for others—like helping a colleague complete a difficult task—will spark positive emotions from your limbic system. 

Positive limbic system boost idea 6: Focus on what you can control.

In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey writes about the circle of control versus the circle of concern. Your circle of concern is everything that is important to you—your job, your family, the community you live in and so on.

Within that large circle of concern, there is a much smaller circle, which is the circle of control. That consists of the things you can actually control or influence. As Covey noted, you’ll be much happier and more successful if you focus your energy and attention on the things you can have an effect on rather than trying to be the master of everything in your circle of concern. 

Positive limbic system boost idea 7: Remember your why.

Every leader should know their leadership purpose. It reflects your unique beliefs, values and what in life is most important to you. It’s your why.

Executives who follow their why are happier and more positive than leaders who don’t. Remembering your why will help you stay emotionally on course, especially during times of uncertainty, conflict and stress. As an added bonus, executives that use a leadership purpose to guide their actions and decisions have been shown to have higher performing teams and organizations.  

Your employees’ emotions: Create a positive effect on others’ limbic systems

Shared positive limbic system boost idea 8: Connect with people at work.

Be genuinely curious about your coworkers, especially about the good things happening in their lives.

When a colleague casually shares something personal—say, their favorite sports team won a big game last night or they and their spouse discovered a fine Italian restaurant over the weekend—spend time engaging with them about it. Casual conversations like these can strengthen employee relationships, build engagement and trust, and generate positive energy. 

Shared positive limbic system boost idea 9: Ask open-ended questions.

Too many leaders think leadership means telling people what to do and then pelting them with follow-up questions. Naturally, this behavior makes employees feel defensive (or worse).

Instead, leaders should ask open-ended questions that get employees thinking so they’ll come up with new ideas or solutions (which drives their engagement). Ask questions like, “If money wasn’t a factor, how would you tackle this issue?” Actively listen to their answers, then follow-up with clarifying questions.

When your employees know they’re being listened to, not only do they feel engaged and respected, but a physical response occurs: The neurotransmitters of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in their brain kick into gear, causing a surge of pleasant emotions.

Lead yourself, lead others

Neuropsychology is a feature of all of our programs at The BB&T Leadership Institute, but one program in particular concerns how you can create positive emotions through limbic system boosts:

Discovering Leadership Dynamics

A three-day program for mid-level management, Discovering Leadership Dynamics helps middle managers understand their leadership purpose and how to manage teams and communicate in ways that increase employees’ engagement and performance.

Take the next step

For more information about Discovering Leadership Dynamics and other programs, please call 336-665-3300 or email us at

Author bio

Steve Swavely, Ph.D., is a senior vice president and director of client solutions at The BB&T Leadership Institute. As a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 20 years of experience in consulting, training and coaching, he oversees The Leadership Institute’s curriculum and program development.

His previous articles include “It’s not too late make a New Year’s resolution (or two).

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