Today I will discuss emotional anchoring. It’s an important subject and I want to demonstrate how understanding this technique can help to create good habits and decisions.  Deliberate emotional anchoring is useful to change our thoughts and beliefs and therefore behaviours.  To understand the power of anchoring, we also have to look at how our brain causes associations to influence our decision-making. In the article that follows, I explain what this means for us in our personal development journey and for leading a team.

Anchoring and Association

The concepts of anchoring and association both relate to how we connect ideas or experiences in our minds, but they serve different functions and are used in different contexts within psychology and decision-making.

While both association and anchoring involve the linking of different mental or emotional states, anchoring is more about the strategic placement and reliance on these links to guide future behaviour or decisions, whereas association is a broader, more fundamental aspect of how we understand and interpret the world around us.

To illustrate, imagine two individuals:

  • Person A has an association where rainy days make them feel gloomy and sunny days make them feel happy. This is a passive experience based on past emotions tied to weather conditions. When they wake up and see it’s raining they just want to get back into bed.  Their activities for the day look doomed.
  • Person B uses anchoring: they successfully anchor their mood to various activities such as playing music or going for a run.  This means if their days involve activities which trigger feelings of happiness, then it does not matter if it’s a rainy or sunny day.

Emotional Anchoring

Anchoring, a term borrowed from nautical language where it denotes securing a vessel in place, refers in psychological terms to the process of associating an emotional response with a particular stimulus. Originally identified in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), anchoring occurs when our emotional state becomes linked to a specific sensory experience, such as a touch, sound, or visual cue. This link can trigger similar emotions whenever the stimulus is reencountered.

Anchoring is typically used intentionally, aiming to anchor a particular mindset or emotional state that can be recalled when needed. It is a common technique used in therapeutic or self-improvement contexts where deliberate change is sought.

When I drive on a motorway fear can often kick in especially when it’s particularly busy.  I long ago developed a mantra when I felt fearful in those situations.  So when I feel fear coming on, either on a motorway or in other situations, I simply repeat that mantra until I feel calm and confident.  I have anchored my emotional response of fear to a mantra which transforms me into a different emotional state.


Association is a broader cognitive process where our minds naturally connect two or more ideas, experiences, or sensations.  Associations can be formed through repeated exposure or strong emotional experiences. For example, if you always hear a specific song while on vacation, you might later associate that song with feelings of relaxation and happiness.

Association in the human mind is a general and broad process, encompassing any mental connection between concepts, emotions, or physical sensations. These connections help us navigate the world by linking various pieces of information together, allowing us to form a coherent understanding of our surroundings and experiences, even when we’re not actively trying to create these links.

When I was younger I went for an interview when in the lead-up to it I was feeling reasonably confident.  When I got into the interview room and sat down, I was completely emotionally hijacked.  My mind became confused, I felt agitated and just wanted to get out of the room.  Needless to say, the interview was disastrous.  After the ordeal and upon reflection I realised my emotional response was to the chairperson.

He strongly resembled someone who had bullied me at school and while it was not the same person, I realised that his physical resemblance had triggered my emotional response.  This is a case where I associated this man with my memory of pain and helplessness.  While this situation is marked, I realised that much of our decision-making is linked to associations we have made in the past.

Using Emotional Anchoring for Your Personal Development

Emotional anchoring techniques provide powerful tools for creating a new and more positive reality, offering various personal benefits. By learning to apply these techniques effectively, you can make significant strides in your emotional and psychological growth.

Overcoming Negative Associations

Negative associations from past experiences can significantly influence your present emotional state. Emotional anchoring can help you replace these associations with positive ones, essentially reprogramming your emotional responses to certain triggers. By consciously choosing to anchor positive emotions to stimuli that previously elicited negative responses, you can gradually diminish the power of those negative associations.

Reducing Reactive Behaviors

Reactivity, often a product of unchecked emotions, can be mitigated through the use of emotional anchors. By establishing calm or positive emotional responses as reactions to typically upsetting scenarios, you can maintain your composure and respond more thoughtfully to stressors.

Relieving Emotional Suffering

Emotional suffering stemming from both past and present experiences can be alleviated through anchoring. This process involves linking comforting, positive emotional states to memories or current situations that cause distress, fostering a sense of peace and resilience.

Overcoming Painful Memories

Similar to relieving emotional suffering, overcoming painful memories through anchoring involves associating these memories with positive feelings or dissociating them from the emotional responses they typically evoke. This can reduce the pain experienced when recalling these memories and can aid in the healing process.

Relieving Present-Day Challenges

In day-to-day life, challenges that evoke stress, anxiety, or frustration can be more effectively managed through the use of emotional anchors. By anchoring positive emotions to these everyday challenges, you can approach them with a better mindset and improve your overall mental health.

How to Use Emotional Anchoring

What follows are the common techniques used to develop emotional anchoring.  You will be more comfortable using these depending on your preferred communication style.

Physical Anchors

These could be specific gestures, such as touching a piece of jewellery or engaging in a physical action like squeezing a stress ball. Each physical action is paired with a positive emotional state, which can be triggered during stressful moments to bring about calmness and focus.

Visual Anchors

Visual cues can be particularly potent due to their immediate impact on our mood. This might involve keeping a motivational quote in view on your desk or setting a serene image as your phone wallpaper. Seeing these visual anchors can quickly shift your mental state from anxiety to peace.

Verbal Anchors

Verbal anchors involve using specific words or phrases that evoke a desired emotional state. Repeating affirmations or key motivational phrases can serve to stabilize emotions and reinforce a positive mental framework.

Using Emotional Anchoring to Achieve Team Results

If you lead teams then there are some clear benefits to using emotional anchoring techniques at work.  Here are some of them.

Enhancing Focus and Productivity

Routine Anchors

Establishing a morning routine, such as reviewing daily goals while drinking coffee, signals the brain to focus. This routine serves as an anchor, transitioning employees into a productive mindset.

Environmental Anchors

Designating specific areas for different types of work optimizes cognitive resources. Quiet zones for deep focus and communal areas for collaboration anchor mental states to physical locations.

Reducing Stress and Managing Emotions

Physical Anchors

Small objects, like stress balls or personal mementoes, trigger relaxation or motivation. Squeezing a stress ball or viewing a family photo redirects thoughts towards calmness.

Sensory Anchors

Ambient music or certain scents in the workplace, such as lavender or peppermint, act as anchors. They enhance relaxation or alertness, influencing mood and energy levels.

Improving Communication and Team Dynamics

Verbal Anchors

Consistently used phrases or words in meetings can anchor a group to specific behaviours. Phrases like “team-focused” promote collaboration, while “solution-oriented” enhances problem-solving.

Visual Anchors

Symbols or visual cues reinforce organizational culture. Posters with core company values or mission statements remind employees of shared goals.

Facilitating Change and Training

Repetition Anchors

Repeating key concepts or procedures during training sessions anchors new knowledge. This makes it easier for employees to recall and apply skills.

Celebratory Anchors

Associating project completion or milestones with celebrations creates positive anchors. These motivate teams and reinforce desired behaviours.

Enhancing Well-being and Personal Growth

Motivational Anchors

Encouraging employees to set personal affirmations or goals and reminding them in meetings serves as motivational anchors. These maintain focus on personal and professional growth.

Behavioral Anchors

Instituting a culture of regular positive feedback anchors specific behaviours. This promotes a continuous cycle of positive reinforcement and improvement.

Moral Dilemmas in Leadership Using Anchoring

Autonomy vs. Influence

A team leader might use positive reinforcement as an anchor to promote productivity, such as applauding team members publicly for meeting targets. While this can boost morale and productivity, it may also pressure individuals to overwork or prioritize work over personal well-being, subtly manipulating their behaviour by exploiting their desire for approval and recognition.

Transparency vs. Manipulation

Anchoring can be employed to associate team success with specific corporate values or leadership decisions. This might involve highlighting only the successes following strategic decisions made by the leader while ignoring other factors that contributed to those successes. Such selective presentation can manipulate team perception, making them more accepting of decisions without critical analysis.

Ethical Boundaries in Influence

Using emotional triggers to anchor certain behaviours can be seen as manipulative. For instance, a leader might consistently use sombre tones and language about layoffs or market challenges. In the same breath, they request overtime work, anchoring feelings of fear and insecurity to requests for extra effort. This could unfairly exploit employees’ emotions to elicit desired outcomes.

Understanding Emotional Anchoring Is Powerful

Understanding the power of emotional anchoring is key.  When used for good it is a powerful tool. It can be used for both your own and others’ development.  However, it must be used as a force for good and respect for individuals’ boundaries and rights.

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I help leaders develop self- mastery, helping them to become confident in their own inner guidance.

I collaborate with leadership experts, managers and HR professionals to help them get their own message and unique services and products to a wide audience.