09 Aug 2018


What do high-octane negative emotions such as fear, anger, disgust and hate all have in common? They can all be linked back to the primitive ‘fight or flight’ response and they all get a very bad press. Yet, these negative emotions can have a very positive effect on our performance.

Words: Jeremy Snape, Sporting Edge

While emotions such as sadness, jealousy, fear and anger have negative connotations, they evolved to help us survive, triggering the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which would prime us to fight or flee for our lives. These same systems, although not now used in the same contexts, can still be highly beneficial. Rather than becoming concerned about being fearful or angry or allowing ourselves to stew in these emotions, we can learn to understand their purpose and then channel them productively to drive us forward.

Take anxiety, for example, a classic trigger of the physiological fight or flight response. When it is severe, the results can be very negative, but mild anxiety is likely to make you more alert and ready to perform in high-pressure situations. Anxiety also plays a key part in your decision-making process, because it forces you to consciously ask how well prepared you are and to assess any risks.

Rather than seeking validation from your peers by asking, ‘am I right to do this?’, you’re better off asking, ‘what am I missing here?’. In this example, people are able to challenge you and provide additional views or insight, which should quash your anxiety and enable you to commit to your decisions with more confidence.

Often, we’ll feel most anxious in the gap between stimulus and response, such as the night before a big match or a crucial meeting. In these situations, proactively employing skills like visualisation and simulation to mentally rehearse your performance can be useful. When you feel worried, you can also use the anxiety to improve or prepare further, identifying the root of your concern and tackling it head on. It’s the combination of anxiety and training that equals optimum performance.


While we clearly don’t want to encourage emotions like anxiety and sadness, it’s worth remembering that the goal of constant happiness isn’t a realistic one, at least not when using the common perception of happiness. Somehow, we’ve confused happiness with ‘fun’, which is a short-term state of heightened excitement that masks our longer-term negative mood. Happiness is actually a low-level contentment with the way your life is at a particular time – a far more achievable goal.

The balance in your mood between fun, happiness and the more negative emotions also depends on how you believe the world should be. For example, a salesman might be happy with his monthly bonuses until a more favourable commission structure in another department sees his peers earn more. His own situation remains unchanged but, suddenly, his happiness has diminished and other less positive emotions have emerged.

Faced with the urge to compare yourself to others, emotions such as jealousy, anger and anxiety should be considered a useful warning system, helping to keep your beliefs and perspective in check.


Awareness of the potentially positive effects of ‘negative’ emotions can allow you, as a leader, to make more informed decisions. For example, if you understand that you are more prone to cognitive biases when in a very happy mood, you can make a conscious effort to be balanced and rational. It could be argued that assessment processes, such as team review meetings and interviews, should be conducted in times when mood is on a plateau, or even following failure, rather than during the elation directly after you’ve won a match or picked up a new commercial deal. This would allow for more accurate evaluations and analysis, potentially increasing the likelihood of improvement in the future.

Sometimes negative emotions such as anger or anxiety can feel like limiting forces, and at times you may feel guilty, even inferior, for experiencing them. However, they can help you to remain focused and ready, and more driven and motivated to achieve your personal and organisational goals. For this to happen, you need to understand how to channel them in a positive way, to drive up your performance rather than limiting it.