How to Recognize and Manage Employees’ Cognitive Mistakes

In 2019, the biggest part of the L&D industry’s efforts was aimed at developing leadership (65%), communication (64%), and collaboration skills (55%). But why?

Employees with soft skills can do what machines can not—they can build empathetic and personal conversations with colleagues and customers, increasing customers’ satisfaction, loyalty, and thus their company’s revenues.

The times when the efficiency of soft skills development was hard to measure are in the past. Last year, scientists at MIT Sloan determined that a 12-month soft skills training could deliver a 250% return on investment.

Soft skills training that develops abilities to better communicate and collaborate, as well as to control one’s emotions and behaviors, impacts employees’ personalities. It gives them a foundation for future learning and, obviously, a better understanding of the people around them.

These training programs are developed to improve the quality of interactions between different people, and in order to better understand others, employees have to understand themselves. We think it would be extremely useful to provide soft skills training with a special training that targets cognitive distortions in your workers and teaches them how to beat these distortions. 

Cognitive distortions are irrational misconceptions about people’s selves, their environment, and the people around them. They occur due to the propensity of the human mind to simplify, a low or high self-esteem, issues with mental health, stereotypes and biases about how the one or others should behave, or expectations, among other reasons. Essentially, they are “mistakes” in people’s attitude—in the way they assess situations; they distort it with guilt, shame, anger, frustration, and other emotions. Surely, such feelings determining people’s behavior impact the workforce as a whole.

Ten cognitive distortions in employees’ behaviors

Cognitive Distortions

The study of cognitive distortions was initiated by psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck. His work was continued by David D. Burns, targeting cognitive distortions in his practice of cognitive behavioral therapy, helping people to beat anxiety and depression. Here, we’ll describe ten main cognitive distortions, provide work-related illustrations of them and then explain how companies can reduce the influence of these distortions on employees’ productivity through specific soft skills training.

  1. Overgeneralization

“Performance review was not good enough—yet again,” thinks Matt, leaving the meeting room. He sighs. “I am always just not good enough.”

Burns describes overgeneralization as “viewing a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.” Usually, you can hear a phrase similar to Matt’s from people with low self-esteem, who perceive a single negative event as something that is happening around them constantly and will continue to happen in the future.

  1. Labeling

“God, I’m such a loser,” thinks Andrea, a marketing manager, after noticing a small ketchup spot on her shirt before the meeting.

Labels are “ready-to-use” types of generalizations that can be based on one instance or on the experience or social-cultural background.

Labels rarely correlate with actual life, but they fit the way our brain functions, constantly looking for the line of least resistance. For people with low self-esteem, it’s easier to label themselves as “stupid”, “unprofessional”, or “sloppy” as soon as something frustrating happens than to perceive a ketchup spot as an accidental event they have no control over.

2.1. Mislabeling

“They look like criminals,” thinks Katie, a cafe manager, unlocking her cell phone and calling 911. “Hi, I have a couple of guys with hoods on at my cafe who are refusing to make an order or leave. I think they want to rob us…”

Mislabeling that is an act of labeling someone or ourselves. Of course, we can’t tell for sure what exactly Katie was thinking about, but her thoughts definitely made her call the police because of the people’s appearance.

Mislabeling could also have its origin in the act of self-labeling: mislabeling due to self-labeling. For instance, people who’ve failed an earlier task may deem themselves unable to perform the task at all.

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  1. Personalization

“Oh, that conference went badly for us and we did not get enough sales leads, because I didn’t train my assistants properly,” thinks Melissa, a saleswoman, who has just returned from sick leave.

In personalization, people believe that the actions of others are their own fault. They feel responsible for external events that actually have multiple reasons for occurring, overreacting and feeling guilty if something goes wrong or not in the way they’re expecting. Blame is the core of personalization: in reverse personalization, people blame others and don’t notice their own mistakes or behaviors that could contribute to a problem.

  1. Polarized thinking  

Debby always thought she succeeded as a senior sales manager because she aimed at nothing but absolute success. Now, being the new head of the sales department, she doesn’t think she can make it work and won’t even try.

“It’s all or nothing!” Do you hear that phrase often? It’s polarized thinking: a distortion that makes someone like Debby evaluate herself in contrasts. Such people can be only one of two things: an absolute winner or a total failure. If they’re good, they’ve got the world in their pocket. If they’re not, they’re losers.

Black-and-white thinking often becomes a reason for procrastination among junior staff or in interns. They want to do tasks perfectly on the first try, and if they can’t, they don’t do it until the deadline comes, rushing in a low-quality job submission.

  1. Jumping to conclusions

“She looks at me in such a way—she probably hates me because today I made more sales,” thinks a frontline worker, Howard, looking at his colleague, Ellen when their shift comes to the end.

“Damn, I knew it! Tomorrow, he will tell the manager about my extra break,” nervously thinks Ellen.

According to Burns, there are two types of this distortion, both of which occur when one judges a situation or person without knowing all the details. In the above-mentioned cases, Howard experiences mind reading: he mistakenly believes that he knows Ellen’s thoughts. Ellen, on the other hand, is possessed by powers of fortune-telling: she predicts—just on the basis of one’s look—the future.

As you can see, both Ellen and Howard confused their feelings with the facts surrounding these events: Howard, for some reason, feels that he deserves hate because he had more customers, and Ellen feels guilty and threatened due to her additional break. Also, both of them don’t bother to check if they are correct through communication—they are absolutely certain about their perceptions of the situation.

  1. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization

“It’s such a stupid mistake! How could I let it happen?” thinks Clara, blankly staring at her company’s Facebook page. She removes a double space from the last post in a matter of seconds. “There’s no way people didn’t see. I’m gonna get fired. My career is ruined.”

Our next cognitive distortion occurs when people exaggerate their mistakes or negative events. Often, catastrophizing is a characteristic of people who are not used to mistakes and try to be perfect (this distortion is strongly related to black-and-white thinking). Minimization is of similar nature. It’s the habit of making a big deal out of trivial things.

  1. Emotional reasoning

“I don’t feel like doing this,” sighs Josh, staring at the screen with prospects’ data that he should be analyzing to make more targeted sales. “I probably wouldn’t even use this.”

All cognitive distortions are related to confusing what people feel about reality and what the facts are. Emotional reasoning is the absolute of this phenomena: Josh reasons from what he feels and chooses to act on what he feels, not on what he needs to do. Everyone has experienced that distortion at some point, when we’re tired or when the task at hand seems too big or too complicated.

  1. Mental filter: Discontinue the positives

“This went terribly,” says Chloe after the product presentation.

“Come on, you were great!” smiles Charlotte. “Moreover, did you see how excited they were when we said that we are fully ready for the launch of a new coffee blend marketing campaign next week?”

“But everybody laughed because I misspelled our CEO’s name…” Chloe thinks, answering her colleague’s smile. “My reputation is ruined. I don’t deserve any credit.”

You probably saw that Chloe has mind-reading abilities—yes, she jumped to a conclusion. She is under the influence of a mental filter, only noticing the negative aspects of what happened. She also ignores her colleague’s positive feedback because she thinks her victories are not comparable to her failures.

Chloe’s thoughts about herself not deserving credit may also relate to the impostor syndrome: a psychological pattern in which a person fears of being exposed as a fraud, or an impostor, someone who’s gained success through tricks or luck and not from personal efforts. In Chloe’s case, she refuses to admit her competence or the efforts she made in order to launch a new coffee blend marketing campaign, and this little incident with a misspelled CEO’s name adds even more doubts to whether she deserved the success.

  1. “Shoulds” and “musts”

“I should have completed that today,” sighs Jeremy, tiredly looking at the code on his screen, blurred behind his eyes. He has a backache. It’s 10:37 PM. He leaves the office, feeling terrible. Jeremy has not met the tentative deadline this month.

People always have some image of themselves—how they are supposed to look, behave, talk, etc. “Shoulds” and “musts” are installed by us, and we expect ourselves to function with them. Actually, there is nothing bad with imposing some time frames or responsibilities, that is, until our “shoulds” are unrealistic, as in Jeremy’s case, or badly defined, and we end up feeling guilty about not meeting our own expectations.

This distortion can be aimed at other people too. When people don’t meet the expectations we have for them, we may get offended and become angry.

  1. The just-world fallacy

“The manager shouts at me constantly. Well, that’s because I deserve it. I’m such a bad person,” thinks Fiona, a cashier in a sports store.  

In the just-world fallacy, people believe that everything that happens to them is fair and powered by some kind of karma. Such thinking occurs because it’s easier to think that everyone gets what they deserve than to believe in unfairness or accidents. Such thinking is dangerous though. For instance, the victims of harassment, abuse, or violence get blamed for how they looked and behaved. In our example, the manager shouts constantly not because Fiona’s right and that was what she deserved, but because it’s just the way he treats all of his employees.

It’s important to track just-world fallacies in the workplace: they can become a reason for a person to not report abuse in a team, and the consequences for it are often terrible.

A short guide to removing cognitive distortions in the workplace

A short guide to removing cognitive distortions in the workplace

As you probably noticed from our examples, in all cognitive distortions, employees replaced reality with their own thoughts, assumptions, predictions or biases. They acted on what they thought to be real even though it wasn’t.

One of the most important points Burns elaborates on in his book Feeling good is that emotions can’t prove that thoughts are accurate, because thoughts create emotions. So, how can you teach your employees to recognize distortive thoughts, remove them and promote more accurate assessments?

Ensure awareness and communication

Make sure your employees are familiar with the definitions of different cognitive mistakes and examples of distorted thinking — microlearning is the perfect way to provide such training.

Ask for feedback to know which examples are relatable: perhaps, at the start, it’d be better to allow people to speak anonymously. To train your employees to recognize and identify distortions, you can use, for instance, scenario-based training. Feeling good is also great instructional material as well as Burns’ TED talk.

Make sure to explain that this training is aimed at improving your teams’ communication and collaboration, helping them understand each other, themselves, and the customers’ needs.

Provide employees with a triple column technique

This is a technique proposed by Burns to recognize negative thoughts and generate a rational response to them, which could be easily presented to the employees to input their responses to be processed and analyzed through a smart learning platform. Using it, your employees can express negative thoughts as soon as they occur, compare them to a list of cognitive distortions and will try to find more objective explanations of the situation.

For instance,

  • Automatic thought

“I feel unprepared for this task. I wouldn’t be able to accomplish it.”

  • Cognitive distortions

Emotional reasoning, fortune telling.  

  • Rational response

“I feel unprepared now, but it doesn’t mean I can’t complete this task. I think I’m scared of underperforming. Though, I won’t perform better if I do nothing at all. I’d better take on a task that I’m familiar with now and try a new task later. And if it is still challenging for me, I’ll ask for some help or more details.”

Another way to generate rational responses is to make “should” and “shouldn’t” sound realistic. Employees’ black-and-white thinking is easily trackable and can be “cured” with an explanation that mistakes are important for one’s overall experience: failures happen everywhere and, if analyzed properly, they improve overall performance. There is nothing more effective in learning than trial-and-error, especially when you can simulate work-related situations and allow your people to fail safely in a learning environment. For example, background-based discriminative labeling can be “cured” with diversity training. The other way to turn distortions into a dust is to question them: “Am I interpreting my manager’s feedback?”, “Is it absolutely my fault that we missed the deadline, despite so many people having worked on this project and not meeting their own deadlines?”

Build a habit to acknowledge and bust cognitive distortions on the fly

With the right amount of training and illustrative examples of cognitive distortions, your employees would be able to recognize them in others.

Embrace this process. Create a habit of dissolving groundless guilt and shame in the workplace, and make sure your employees know that their achievements count and their contributions to the company are recognized and valued.

Then they will strengthen a sense of themselves, spot their own distortions and, with this gained or returned self-awareness, would be able to handle other people’s distortions whether it be from customers or their colleagues. In other words, their upgraded emotional intelligence will contribute to the overall performance and health of your company.

To motivate and engage your workforce, you’ll need the right technology – a platform using context and data to trigger the right activities at the right times for the right behaviors. Click here to see Rallyware in action or read more about our performance enablement suite.