November 22, 2023 •

17 min reading

How cognitive distortions affect employee performance

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Our brains are a remarkable tool that we rely on for guidance and understanding. Trusting in our own cognitive abilities is essential, as it allows us to navigate through life's challenges, recognize potential threats, and seek meaningful connections. It is through our brain's intricate wiring that we can detect danger, attract potential partners, and solve the problems that come our way.

However, there are instances when it is wise to question the messages your brain is sending you. It's not that your brain is intentionally deceiving you, but rather that it may have formed some flawed or unhelpful connections over time. Creating these faulty connections in the brain can surprisingly be done easily. Our brains have a natural inclination to make connections between thoughts, ideas, actions, and consequences, even when there is no true correlation between them.


In the vast field of social science research, there exists a multitude of terms that attempt to capture the essence of this particular type of error. Often steeped in academic jargon and complex wording, these errors are commonly referred to as "cognitive distortions" within the realm of our thoughts and beliefs.

What are cognitive distortions?

A cognitive distortion is a distorted and irrational thought pattern that distorts our perception of reality. These detrimental thought patterns have the power to diminish motivation, lower self-esteem, and contribute to issues like anxiety and depression. In the professional setting, cognitive distortions can have a significant impact on an employee's performance, productivity, decision-making abilities, communication skills, confidence levels, job satisfaction, and overall well-being.

Two psychologists at the origin of cognitive distortions

Delve deeper into the realm of cognitive distortions and their profound impact on depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, and you will encounter the names that have become synonymous with this field: Aaron Beck and David Burns.

Aaron Beck, a graduate of Yale Medical School in 1946, made significant contributions to the field of psychology through his role in the development of cognitive therapy. Beck noticed that many of his depressed patients operated on false assumptions and distorted thinking, leading him to develop Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This therapy is based on the idea that our thought patterns and beliefs drive our experiences and can be modified to eliminate troublesome symptoms. Additionally, Beck developed widely used scales for evaluating symptoms of depression and risk of suicide: the Beck Depression Inventory and the Beck Hopelessness Scale.

David Burns, a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, is known for his best-selling book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. His work is based on Beck's research and focuses on identifying and correcting distorted thinking patterns.


Examples of cognitive distortions

Cognitive distortions come in various forms and can affect anyone, regardless of their location or circumstances. In the workplace, some common types of cognitive distortions can have a significant impact on employee performance. Let's explore a few of these distortions and examine how they manifest in a work setting.

















1. All-or-nothing / Polarized thinking

One common cognitive distortion is "all-or-nothing" thinking, also referred to as "Black-and-White Thinking." This type of thinking involves viewing situations in extreme terms, such as success or failure, without considering the nuances or possibilities in between.

Employees who engage in all-or-nothing thinking may set unrealistic expectations for themselves, creating a sense of urgency to achieve success, causing them to shy away from taking risks or even trying new tasks.

Example in the workplace:

Consider a marketing professional who is responsible for launching a new advertising campaign for their company. They've invested a lot of time and effort into the project, but when the campaign goes live, initial results are not as expected. The number of clicks and conversions falls short of their lofty expectations.

An all-or-nothing thinker in this scenario might react by believing, "I've failed. This campaign is a total disaster. I'm a terrible marketer." They might feel overwhelmed by a sense of failure, leading to anxiety and reluctance to take on future marketing initiatives.

How to overcome it?

To overcome this cognitive distortion, the employee could adopt a more balanced perspective. They could recognize that not all marketing campaigns yield immediate success, and there are often valuable lessons to be learned from initial setbacks. By acknowledging the areas that need improvement and adjusting the campaign strategy accordingly, they can turn this setback into an opportunity for growth and eventually achieve better results.


2. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is another cognitive distortion characterized by taking one instance or example and applying it to a broader pattern. In the workplace, this distortion can manifest as employees making sweeping conclusions based on limited experiences or isolated incidents. With overgeneralization, words like “always,” “never,” “everything,” and “nothing” are frequent in your train of thought.

Example in the workplace:

Imagine an employee who has been consistently meeting their project deadlines and delivering high-quality work. However, on one occasion, they encounter an unexpected challenge that delays the project's completion. In response, they might think, "I'm always letting my team down with my mistakes. I'm completely unreliable.

This overgeneralization leads to an overly negative self-assessment and undermines the employee's confidence in their abilities. Instead of recognizing the isolated incident as a temporary setback or a learning opportunity, they apply it as a negative label to their entire professional performance.

How to overcome it?

To counter overgeneralization, employees should practice more balanced thinking. They can remind themselves that everyone encounters occasional challenges or setbacks in their work. It's important to avoid using extreme terms like "always" or "never" and, instead, focus on the specific circumstances surrounding each situation.


3. Mental filter

The mental filter distortion is akin to wearing a pair of glasses that only allow you to see the negative aspects of a situation, while filtering out any positives. Imagine it as focusing on a single negative comment in a loving relationship and believing the entire relationship is doomed, despite years of positive experiences.

In the workplace, the mental filter distortion can lead employees to hone in on one unfavorable incident or piece of feedback, ignoring the numerous positive aspects of their performance and surroundings.

Example in the workplace:

Picture an employee who has consistently received praise and recognition for their contributions to a project. However, during one team meeting, a colleague provides constructive feedback on a specific aspect of their work. Instead of considering this input as an opportunity for growth, the employee filters out all the past accolades and focuses solely on this minor critique. They start thinking, "My work is terrible. I'm not cut out for this job."

How to overcome it?

To overcome the mental filter distortion, individuals should strive for a more balanced perspective. This means acknowledging both positive and negative aspects of a situation. In the workplace, it's crucial to accept constructive criticism as a chance for improvement rather than letting it overshadow your accomplishments. By embracing a more well-rounded viewpoint, employees can maintain a healthier and more constructive mindset, allowing them to grow professionally and personally.


4. Jumping to conclusions – Mind reading & fortune-telling

Jumping to conclusions, often in the forms of mind reading and fortune-telling, is like having a mental crystal ball that lets us believe we can read others' thoughts and predict the future. This distortion involves making negative assumptions or firm predictions without any substantial evidence to support them. It's like assuming you know what's going on in someone else's head or foreseeing future outcomes without valid reasoning.

Example in the workplace:

Imagine you walk into the office, and your colleague or manager appears serious and distant. Instead of seeking clarification or engaging in a conversation, you immediately jump to conclusions. You assume they must be upset with you or that you've done something wrong, and based on this assumption, you decide to keep your distance. You might even avoid consulting them for help or decision-making, convinced they'll reject your request.

How to overcome it?

Overcoming this cognitive distortion requires a deliberate effort to pause and assess the situation objectively. It's essential to challenge your assumptions and resist the urge to jump to conclusions based on incomplete information. Instead of assuming negative intentions, initiate open and honest communication. Approach your colleague or manager and simply ask how they're feeling or if there's anything on their mind. By avoiding unfounded assumptions and seeking clarification, you can build stronger relationships, foster trust, and create a more positive work environment.


5. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization

Magnification, also known as catastrophizing, and its counterpart, minimization, are like the "Binocular Trick" that distorts your perspective. In this distortion, individuals tend to exaggerate or downplay the significance, importance, or likelihood of events, often leading to inaccurate perceptions.

For instance, imagine an athlete who typically performs well but makes a single mistake. They might magnify the importance of that error, convincing themselves that they are now a terrible teammate. Conversely, an athlete who achieves a prestigious award may minimize its significance, persistently believing they are only a mediocre player.

Example in the workplace:

Let's say you applied for a promotion or a raise, but your request was not approved. If you tend toward magnification, you might catastrophize the situation, thinking that your career is doomed or that you're an inadequate employee. In contrast, if you lean towards minimization, you might downplay the importance of the promotion, convincing yourself that it doesn't matter much anyway.

How to overcome it?

To overcome this cognitive distortion, strive to maintain a balanced perspective. Avoid blowing situations out of proportion or dismissing them too casually. Instead, objectively evaluate the event's actual significance and impact. Seek feedback or clarification from relevant parties to gain a more accurate understanding. Recognizing and addressing these magnification or minimization tendencies can lead to healthier, more realistic interpretations and responses.


6. Emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning, while surprising to some, is a distortion that many of us have unwittingly embraced at some point. It revolves around accepting our emotions as indisputable facts, often manifesting as "I feel it, so it must be true." However, it's crucial to remember that our feelings don't always align with reality.

For instance, imagine feeling jealous and automatically assuming that your partner has romantic feelings for someone else. Despite the intensity of your emotions, this doesn't make it a factual reality. We all acknowledge that it's irrational to equate our feelings with facts, yet emotional reasoning remains a common distortion that impacts our judgments.

Example in the workplace:

Consider a scenario where a colleague receives praise for a project you also contributed to, but your immediate emotional response is envy. You might irrationally conclude that your colleague is now a favorite or that your contributions are undervalued. However, these feelings don't necessarily represent the objective reality of the situation.

How to overcome it?

To combat emotional reasoning, consciously separate your emotions from factual assessments. When confronted with strong feelings, take a step back and critically evaluate the situation. Challenge the validity of your emotional responses by seeking evidence or alternative perspectives. Engaging in this self-awareness can help you make more rational decisions and minimize the influence of emotional distortions in the workplace.


7. "Should" & "Must" statements

The inclination to make "should" statements is a harmful distortion that many of us grapple with. These statements are essentially self-imposed or imposed on others, containing notions of what we "should" do, what we "ought" to do, or what we "must" do. However, they often lead to unrealistic expectations and emotional turmoil.

When we subject ourselves to excessive "should" statements, it frequently results in self-inflicted guilt for falling short of these rigid standards. Conversely, imposing "should" statements on others typically leads to frustration and resentment when they inevitably fail to meet our lofty expectations.

Example in the workplace:

Imagine working on a team project, and you find yourself thinking, "I should be able to complete this task flawlessly." When you inevitably encounter challenges or make mistakes, this "should" statement intensifies your feelings of inadequacy and self-blame.

How to overcome it?

Overcoming "should" and "must" statements involves practicing self-compassion and embracing a more flexible mindset. Instead of clinging to rigid expectations, focus on setting realistic and achievable goals for yourself and others. Recognize that perfection is seldom attainable, and mistakes are part of the learning process. Shifting towards a more forgiving and understanding perspective can lead to improved workplace well-being and healthier relationships.


8. Labeling and mislabeling

Labeling and mislabeling are cognitive distortions characterized by assigning extreme judgments of value to ourselves or others based on isolated instances or experiences. These distortions often involve overly emotional, loaded, and inaccurate language when describing individuals or situations.

For instance, consider a scenario in the workplace where a colleague overlooks acknowledging your assistance. Falling into this distortion, you might label them as "ungrateful" or "inconsiderate," which doesn't accurately capture the full scope of their behavior.

Example in the workplace:

Imagine you make a minor error during a team presentation. Instead of acknowledging it as a simple mistake, you label yourself as "incompetent" or "a failure" based on this single incident.

How to overcome it?

To overcome labeling and mislabeling, it's crucial to recognize the inherent complexity of human behavior and refrain from making sweeping judgments based on isolated events. Foster a more compassionate and understanding perspective by acknowledging that people can exhibit a wide range of behaviors in various situations. Practice using neutral and accurate language to describe actions and attributes, which can lead to healthier workplace relationships and improved self-esteem.


9. Personalization

Personalization is a cognitive distortion characterized by the tendency to take everything personally or assume undue blame without logical justification. It involves incorrectly attributing external events or emotions to oneself, even when there's no rational basis for such conclusions.

In the workplace, personalization might manifest when you believe you're the cause of every instance of frustration or moodiness in your colleagues or superiors.

Example in the workplace:

Suppose your team faces challenges in meeting a project deadline. Instead of recognizing that multiple factors contributed to the delay, you personalize the situation and blame yourself entirely for the setback.

How to overcome it?

Overcoming personalization involves cultivating a more realistic and less self-blaming perspective. Start by critically assessing your role in situations, and avoid automatically assuming responsibility for negative outcomes. Practice separating your feelings from external events, and consider alternative explanations for the behavior or emotions of others. By adopting a more balanced perspective, you can reduce unnecessary self-blame and better navigate workplace dynamics.


10. Control fallacies

Control fallacies encompass two distorted beliefs: (1) the belief that we have no control over our lives and are helpless victims of fate, or (2) the belief that we possess absolute control over ourselves and our environment, making us responsible for the emotions and actions of those around us. Both of these beliefs are fundamentally flawed and detrimental.

In the workplace, a control fallacy might lead to the perception that you are solely responsible for the success or failure of a project, disregarding external factors and team dynamics.

Example in the workplace:

Imagine you're working on a team project that encounters unexpected challenges due to external factors beyond your control. If you fall into a control fallacy mindset, you might believe that the project's difficulties are entirely your fault and that you should have been able to prevent them.

How to overcome it?

Overcoming control fallacies requires recognizing the spectrum of control we have in different situations. Acknowledge that while you may not have complete control over external events, you do have agency over your responses and actions. Strive for a balanced perspective that acknowledges both your limitations and your capacity to influence outcomes. By doing so, you can reduce unnecessary self-blame and enhance your problem-solving abilities in the workplace.


11. Fallacy of fairness

The fallacy of fairness involves the unrealistic assumption that the world operates on a foundation of inherent fairness. This distorted belief can lead to negative emotions when confronted with instances that defy this idealized fairness.

In the workplace, this distortion might manifest as an employee who consistently judges their experiences based on their perception of fairness, resulting in feelings of anger, resentment, or hopelessness when they encounter a situation they deem unfair.

Example in the workplace:

Consider a scenario where a colleague receives a promotion that you believed you deserved due to your hard work and qualifications. If you fall into the fallacy of fairness, you may feel profound anger and resentment, convinced that the promotion process should have been perfectly fair.

How to overcome it?

Overcoming the fallacy of fairness involves recognizing that life is inherently unpredictable and often unfair. Embrace the understanding that not everything will align with your perception of fairness, and that's okay. Instead of fixating on fairness, focus on adapting and responding effectively to the challenges and inequities you encounter in the workplace. This mindset shift can empower you to navigate such situations with resilience and grace.


12. Fallacy of change

The fallacy of change revolves around the unrealistic expectation that others will change if we exert enough pressure or encouragement. This cognitive distortion often accompanies the belief that our happiness and success depend on others conforming to our desires, leading us to believe that forcing change upon those around us is the only means to achieve our goals.

In a workplace context, an employee who thinks, "If I can persuade my colleagues to alter their behavior in ways that suit me, I can become a better team player and experience greater job satisfaction" is entangled in the fallacy of change.

Example in the workplace:

Imagine a scenario where a team member continually disrupts meetings with their lengthy monologues. Believing that their happiness at work hinges on their colleagues' behavior, an employee attempts to pressure their disruptive colleague into changing their communication style.

How to overcome it?

Overcoming the fallacy of change involves recognizing that we cannot control or coerce others to change in line with our preferences. Instead, focus on adapting your own responses and behaviors to effectively navigate situations. Seek constructive ways to communicate your needs and concerns, but accept that others may not change as you wish. Ultimately, your happiness and success should not solely rely on external changes but on your ability to adapt and thrive amid diverse circumstances.


13. Always being right

The cognitive distortion of "Always Being Right" is a common trap for perfectionists and individuals grappling with Imposter Syndrome. It involves the unwavering belief that one must always be right, and the mere possibility of being wrong is utterly unacceptable. Those ensnared by this distortion will vigorously defend their viewpoint, often to extremes.

Consider the internet commenters who engage in endless debates over opinions or political issues, refusing to agree to disagree. For them, it's not merely a difference of opinion, but an intellectual battleground where victory must be secured at any cost.

Example in the workplace:

In a workplace scenario, envision a team meeting where a project's approach is being discussed. An employee fixated on the "Always Being Right" distortion adamantly insists that their approach is the only correct one, dismissing alternative ideas and refusing to consider collaborative solutions.

How to overcome it?

Overcoming the "Always Being Right" distortion begins with recognizing the need for flexibility and open-mindedness. Embrace the idea that it's okay to be wrong sometimes, as it presents opportunities for growth and learning. Practice active listening and respect differing viewpoints, fostering a collaborative environment that values diverse perspectives. Focus on achieving the best outcome collectively rather than winning intellectual battles at all costs.


14. Heaven’s reward fallacy

The "Heaven’s Reward Fallacy" is a distortion that many people fall victim to. It's the belief that one's struggles, suffering, and hard work will inevitably lead to a just reward. This distorted thinking is prevalent and can be observed in various forms, from personal beliefs to portrayals in media.

However, this distortion is misleading because, in reality, life doesn't always reward effort and sacrifice with the expected outcomes. Sometimes, despite our best efforts and significant sacrifices, we may not achieve our desired goals. Clinging to the notion that unwavering hard work guarantees success can lead to disappointment, frustration, anger, and even depression when anticipated rewards fail to materialize.

Example in the workplace:

Imagine an employee who consistently puts in extra hours, takes on additional responsibilities, and sacrifices personal time for the belief that their dedication will lead to a promotion or pay raise. When the expected reward doesn't come as anticipated, they may become disillusioned and demotivated.

How to overcome it?

To combat the "Heaven’s Reward Fallacy," it's crucial to recognize that life's outcomes are not solely determined by hard work and sacrifice. While dedication is valuable, it's equally essential to set realistic expectations and acknowledge that external factors often play a significant role in the results we achieve. Focus on personal growth, learning, and enjoying the journey rather than fixating on specific outcomes.

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How to challenge cognitive distortions?

In conclusion, understanding and overcoming cognitive distortions is essential for fostering a positive and resilient mindset in the workplace. Much like maintaining good physical health, cultivating healthy mental habits is equally vital for overall well-being.

Acknowledging cognitive distortions doesn't mean ignoring challenges, problems, or emotions, but rather approaching them with a proactive attitude. This mindset prevents our thoughts and feelings from amplifying anxiety, allowing us to confront difficulties with greater resilience.

As someone who has grappled with these cognitive filters, I've learned the importance of trusting my ability to handle whatever life throws my way. Worrying about hypothetical future problems not only adds unnecessary stress but also hampers effectiveness, as fear can be a powerful hindrance.

To break free from these unhelpful cognitive filters, you can apply strategies like challenging your thoughts, seeking evidence for and against them, and labeling your thought patterns. Additionally, acceptance without obsession can help you navigate these distortions.

In summary, cognitive distortions significantly impact employee performance. Recognizing and addressing these thought patterns empowers individuals to develop a more positive and realistic mindset. This shift can lead to increased motivation, productivity, and overall job satisfaction. It is imperative for both individuals and organizations to prioritize mental well-being and provide resources and support to effectively address cognitive distortions in the workplace.

Written by

Business Development Senior Manager - Consultant at EHL

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One common problem in interpreting research is the tendency to make false assumptions about causation based on correlation between variables. It is important to remember that just because two variables are correlated does not mean that one directly causes or leads to the other.

Correlation is not causation!