December 25, 2013

The Most Common Self-Defeating ‘Thinking Errors’

As part of my year-end reflections, I’ve been thinking about the issues that we see occur over and over with owner-advisors. As I was thinking about it and talking with my staff about it, we concluded (and it helps that we have a psychology grad on staff) that one of the most frequent challenges that we deal with is “errors in thinking.”

Cognitive psychologists tell us that many of our problems are caused by assumptions we bring to current situations: preconceived notions, or perspectives, that hinder our ability to see things as they really are—and therefore, to deal with them effectively.

In advisory firms, we see these “thinking errors” come up in recruiting, business planning, project assessment, attracting new clients and when owner-advisors are dealing with their employees and their partners. Here the most common thinking errors we see regularly, and what you can to do to avoid them:

  • All or Nothing
    This describes when we tend to think of everything in black or white as opposed to the shades of gray that color most of reality; concluding that something (or someone) is all one way, when things (or people) rarely are. We often see people as being “good” at some things and “bad” at others, when the reality is there are always limits to everyone’s competence, and anyone can learn to get better at almost anything if they practice. Good management involves knowing employees’ limitations, and helping them to expand their abilities. The same is true of life situations: terms like "always", "every" or "never" are tipoffs of faulty thinking (and using those phrases are not conducive to healthy relationships). For example, an owner-advisor might have had a partner who didn’t work out—and conclude that having partners is “bad.” 
  • Disqualifying the Positive
    Very often, I see advisors and employees discount their successes and exaggerate their failures. In thinking this way they are defeating themselves, leading to feelings of inadequacy. (I also see a lot of my friends do this as well.) For example, even when advisors exceed their growth targets, it’s not uncommon for firm owners to focus on the clients they lost, or didn’t attract: “If we just would have signed up X…” Not only does this type of thinking undermine one’s morale—and motivation for continuing to work hard—it can also spill over to one’s employees. Owner-advisors with this error in thinking often conduct their employee reviews by ignoring their employees’ successes and focusing on negative comments or improvements. As you might imagine, this doesn’t help staff morale.

  • Catastrophizing
    I will be frank: this thinking error is one I have very little patience for and is also very common. This is the most destructive  error, with serious repercussions for my clients, their employees and my friends. This is when you give greater weight to the worst possible outcome of a situation, no matter what the situation is. This is a common way of looking at the world in our modern society: we usually refer to people who think this way as “crisis junkies.” These are folks who seem to go out of their way to make a big deal out of everything that happens. Being married to one is bad enough: working for one will make you crazy. The modern world is stressful enough, without inventing new crises. Firm owners who think this way are constantly projecting the worst from relatively minor problems. An innocent scheduling mistake means we’ll lose the client; a dip in the market means we won’t be able to pay bonuses; one lost client means we’re going out of business. Not only do these predictions (which almost never come true, by the way) undermine the credibility of the firm owner, their employees start to discount everything they say. Which means when a real crisis does happen, nobody believes it.
  • Emotional Reasoning
    This is the erroneous belief that your emotions accurately reflect reality. We all have fears—of inadequacy, of failure, of our closet skeletons, of not being accepted or respected. But just because we’re afraid of something doesn’t mean it’s going to come true. Just because you’re afraid your business won’t make it doesn’t mean it’s not succeeding. Just because you are afraid you’re going to fail doesn’t mean you are. Or if you’re afraid your clients don’t respect you, that doesn’t mean they don’t. Or if you don’t particularly like an employee, that doesn’t mean they’re not good at their job. Or if you make an honest mistake against what you believe are your chosen morals doesn’t mean you are going to hell. I had a friend recently tell me that “paranoia is a heightened sense of reality…everything you are paranoid about is going to come true.” When he said this, I naturally rolled my eyes because you know how many times my clients have told me this? Well, a million, and it is one of the first signs of an error in emotional reasoning. While our emotions can lead us to create the very things we fear, they don’t have to if you change your thinking about them. In the rare times that what you most fear does occur, you don’t have to catastrophize about it. Let me tell you, the world doesn’t exactly revolve around you and you are not that important. See how this works… 

How to Fix Errors in Thinking

The first step toward overcoming our “thinking errors” is to identify these negative thoughts and admit that they are often part of our thinking. I tell clients to tell their heads to “shut up,”which ironically usually works quite well. But the real way to solve it (so I am told) is to recognize negative thoughts when they come up (it can also help to share them with someone you trust, so they can point them out to you) and replacing them with rational thoughts. Try asking yourself these questions in this order:

  1. Do I really understand the situation?
  2. How much experience have I had with similar situations?
  3. Is that experience sufficient to prompt my conclusion?
  4. What other conclusions are possible?
  5. What does the evidence really tell me?
  6. What else do I need to know to draw a better conclusion? 

Almost always when you get to the bottom of these questions, you have a different answer then what “your head” is telling you. The fact is that every situation is different: and while a given situation may have important similarities to other situations you’ve encountered, how relevant your prior experience is can only be determined by fully understanding the current situation.

In life, we all deal with hard things. A few I can think of off the top of my head are running a business, being married, building trust in a friend, resisting temptation, raising children, balancing a professional career and a personal life. These things are hard enough without making it harder for no good reason.

In the New Year, if you want to be a better boss, friend, spouse, employee or simply a more honorable person by your own standards, solve the problems first in your own head.

Page 1 of 2
Single page view Reprints Discuss this story
This is where the comments go.