Mental Priming: A powerful tool for high performance

Mental priming has been widely used in sports training with great success. Now advances in neuroscience provide real evidence to show how mental priming functions in the brain. Leaders and managers who embrace the field of neuroleadership have adapted the method sports coaches employ to enhance their own performance and to foster those of their employees. Utilising priming even in small doses has seen dramatic improvements in both workplace engagement and productivity. Here are a few tools you can borrow.

Mental imagery

Imagine you’ve been asked to give a high stakes presentation to a large audience. Did your palms begin to sweat? Nearly everyone suffers from performance anxiety, but there are ways to subdue it.

Intense pre-event preparation can transform your experience. You might even enjoy yourself.

Mental imagery is one technique you can practice in the days and weeks before a big event. Whenever panicky feelings arise, imagine you are taking the podium feeling really confident and relaxed. You look at the audience, take a deep breath, and smile. Imagine enjoying yourself and think about the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel afterwards.

Almost all elite athletes and most sports psychologists employ this kind of mental imagery, and it’s worth adapting their techniques to the more complex workplace environment. Stress, fatigue, a brain deprived of oxygen from sitting down all day, fear of failure, constant interruptions, deadlines are everyday obstacles to peak mental performance. As for focus, which is everything to an athlete, many workers learn to get by on divided attention.


Managing emotions is also critical, since emotional stress downgrades brain function into survival mode. All too often, negative emotions spill over from one interaction to the next, carrying with it an emotional wake that affects everyone you come into contact with. Researchers from Deakin University have found that when employees are trained to take a moment between work and home to reflect, rest, and create a positive intention for their next behaviour, their mood on arriving home improved by as much as 41 per cent.

Subconscious factors

In addition to focused visualisation, emotional regulation and a good distraction management plan, workplaces can intentionally create positive environments that prime for high performance by appealing to employees’ subconscious influences.

A series of studies reported in Europe’s Journal of Psychology has found that prosocial behavior can be increased if a person is subjected to messages that encourage collaborative or helping behavior. These messages may not be seen or noticed consciously but the limbic drivers of prosocial behavior see them and take note. What this means in practice is that if you are giving workshops in collaborative behavior it’s a good idea to gently prime the attendees to do the right thing both before and after the workshops.

It’s not just what we do in the moment, but what we bring to the moment is also an important factor. Dr Fei Song of Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management and her colleagues also studied the subconscious behaviour of employees and their drive to compete. Focusing on gender roles, the research suggests that gender stereotypes originate from the social roles that men and women have traditionally occupied in a society.

“Stereotypes are learned early in life, become part of one’s cultural understanding, and are internalised as personal beliefs and values,” says Song. “People extend stereotypes to develop self-concepts, which are characterised by associations between the self and stereotypical personality traits, abilities and roles. Such stereotypes are likely closely related to the differing levels of competitiveness exhibited on average by men and women.”

The participants in the study were drawn from male and female MBA students at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. The authors hypothesised that women who chose to follow such a professional career path would often experience conflicting role identities: a professional identity that is highly competitive, competent and ambitious and a gender/family identity that is warm, supportive and caring.

Song’s findings reveal that we bring our own deeply held perspectives and cognitive biases to the workplace. This means that the positive priming that works for one person might not be right for another. Finding ways to educate individuals about their own motivations and the factors that influence performance is an important step.

The power of priming

Positive priming, when used properly, can provide increased motivation, better mood, and ultimately higher performance. However, because priming works on the subconscious level, it’s important to remember we are as much influenced by negative environmental cues as positive ones. If priming people with a positive word can change both their moods and their work performance, the wrong word or tone as well as negative subliminal messages can change things for the worse.

In addition to understanding their own complex motivational psyche, strong leaders need to understand what motivates each of their employees and to what degree. They must pay careful attention to the kind of information – every single word, in fact – their employees are exposed to.


This post is a reprint of an earlier version by Adair Jones, originally published on BrainWaves for Leaders May 22, 2014.

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