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Last Updated on October 5, 2020

Unhelpful Thinking Habits are useful to understand if you are teaching and providing training on Resilience at Work as these habits do not help our resilience.

Such negative habits make us feel worse and they affect our processes at work. In the long term, these habits also become so ingrained in us that they emerge automatically.

We can identify 12 unhelpful workplace thinking habits and these are discussed below.

1. All or Nothing

This habit is also sometimes called black or white, meaning that things are all one way or another without any degrees in between.

For example, if you make a mistake or do not get the job you wanted, you might think ‘I have failed. There is nothing else I can do; it is over for me’.

Q&A (Question and Answers)

Ask your participants in the training room the following question:

  • How could you re-frame this? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

Suggested Answer

You could instead consider if there are other options. You could ask yourself: ‘Where can I go from here? Are there any solutions? What other options are there?’

2. Over-Generalizing

This refers to seeing a pattern based on a single event. For example, something bad happens in the morning and you think, ‘That’s it. Today is ruined’ or ‘This is the story of my life’.

In a work-related situation, you might have a misunderstanding with a manager and think ‘Management never knows what’s going on. They are all totally useless!’

Q&A (Question and Answers)

Ask the participants:

  • How could you re-frame this situation with the manager? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

You might think instead: ‘This manager has not been kept informed about the situation, so they did not understand what I meant’ or ‘Next time, I will explain the background more clearly instead of assuming that the manager has been kept in the loop’.

3. Mental Filter

This thought process consists in only paying attention to certain types of evidence and ignoring what does not support your mind-set.

Usually, it is biased in favor of negative evidence, such as noticing your failures but not your successes.

This could also be called tunnel vision, whereby you concentrate (as though you are zooming on it with a lens) on one negative detail and dwell on it. In doing so, you ignore all the positive things around it and fail to see the bigger picture.

For example, imagine you are a sales manager and, in the last month, you have achieved a very good sales volume for the company.

Also, over the years, you have done very well overall. However, you only focus on one contract you did not manage to secure. You cannot stop thinking about it and you feel very bad because of this.

Q&A (Question and Answers)

Ask the participants:

  • How could you re-frame this mental attitude? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

You could think, ‘Yes, that contract was very lucrative but I have done very well this month and actually sales have increased.

Also, that potential customer is not the only one around of that caliber. What can I do, the next time, to make sure that I secure a contract like that?’

4. Discounting the Positive

This means to reject all the positive things that you have done or that happened. Good things do not count, only bad things do.

For example, one day at work you feel demotivated because that particular day you have to carry out some boring tasks.

So, you start thinking that you do not like your job anymore; in fact, you hate it and feel down because of it.

Q&A (Question and Answers)

Ask the participants:

  • How could you re-frame this idea? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

You could start thinking of all the good things that your job includes. You might say to yourself, ‘Some tasks are boring and I cannot avoid them as they are part of the job.

However, there are a lot of things I like about this job, such as having control over my workload, the travel opportunities, the social atmosphere etc.’

5. Jumping to Conclusions

This refers to making predictions without having evidence. There are two types of this thought process: mind-reading and fortune-telling.

The former means to believe you know what other people are thinking. The latter means to think you know how things you will turn out, usually badly. So, for example, you think, ‘There is no point in me taking any action as I will not succeed’.

Let’s consider an example in a work context. HR lets the employees know that a review is on its way. So, you think, ‘I knew that this would happen.

The company is going to make a few people redundant but they are not being transparent yet as they want to catch us by surprise, so we cannot react’.

Q&A (Question and Answers)

How could you reframe this reaction? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

You could think that it is too early to draw a conclusion. You need to talk to a few people first. It may be that the review brings opportunities and it may generate change for the better. If not, you will see what happens and take it from there.

Classroom lesson plans

6. Magnifying and Minimizing

This is also called loss of perspective and it refers to either blowing things out of proportion (making a mountain out of a molehill) or underestimating something to make it look less important.

For example, one could say: ‘Now I have lost this job, this is the end of my career! It’s a disaster!’ (Magnifying) or ‘The downsizing in the industry will not affect my job’ (Minimizing).

Q&A (Question and Answers)

Ask the participants:

  • How could you re-frame this way of thinking? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

You could say instead: ‘There will be new opportunities; I just need to look for them’ or ‘This industry is based on trends and innovations. I need to keep my skills up to date and relevant, if I want to always be employable.’

Some useful questions you could ask yourself, when you think that you might be losing perspective, are the following:

  • What’s the worst that can happen?
  • What’s the best that can happen?
  • What is most likely that will happen?

7. Emotional Reasoning

This means assuming that, just because I feel in a certain way, this must be true.This is confusing feelings with facts.
For example, I made a mistake and I feel stupid as a result. If I feel stupid, this means that I must be stupid.

Q&A (Question and Answers)

Ask the participants:

  • How could you re-frame this way of thinking? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

You can think instead, ‘I did something stupid, so I felt stupid at the time.

This does not mean though that I am a stupid person. Anybody can make mistakes.

8. Should Statements

This refers to using critical words such as ‘should’ or ‘must’. If we use these expressions on us, the result is that we feel guilty. We will feel as though we have already failed and we will be even less likely to do what we are supposed to do. If we apply should statements to other people, we will generate frustration.

Should statements reflect a mindset that thinks in terms of absolute rules, according to which there is an unrealistic standard of perfection that we all need to adhere to. This is why should statements can only lead to guilt and disappointment.

Imagine that you are a manager who sets very high and strict levels of performance (unrealistic) and that anything even slightly less than that is unacceptable and leads to disciplinary procedures.

Q&A (Question and Answers)

Ask the participants:

  • What would this mind-set cause the manager to feel? And how would their team members feel? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

As the targets are unrealistic and very strict, the manager will always be disappointed, no matter how good their team members are. The team members will feel stressed and demotivated.

As a result, the company would experience high levels of absenteeism (or presenteeism, which means attending work even when you are sick) and staff turn-over.

Instead, the manager should set a realistic set of goals and expectations and coach the employees to be able to gradually achieve those standards.

If the employees do not meet the standards, before dismissing them, the manager should be flexible, consider their performance over time, see if the employees need support, and only use disciplinary procedures as a last resort when everything else failed.

9. Labeling

This means assigning labels to ourselves or other people (usually negative labels). For example saying, ‘I’m a loser’; ‘He is an idiot’.

For instance, calling yourself a loser for not getting a job you wanted. Or labeling your colleague an idiot because they do not share your opinion on something.

Q&A (Question and Answers)

Ask the participants:

  • What could you do instead of labeling yourself or others negatively when something does not go well? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

You could be kinder to yourself and think that you did not get the job this time but there will be other opportunities. If your colleague expresses an opinion you do not agree with, you could consider their point of view.

Maybe there are other ways of looking at the same problem, there may be things you did not consider and your colleague may have a point.

10. Taking Things Personally

This means blaming yourself for something that was not entirely your fault. This attitude is a problem, particularly if you do this frequently.

For example, you miss a deadline at work and think: ‘This always happens to me, it is my fault. I should have done (and start listing all the things you should have done)’.

Q&A (Question and Answers)

Ask the participants:

  • What could you do instead? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

You could say to yourself, ‘I did all I could under the circumstances but some aspects of the situation were outside my control’.

11. Wishful Thinking

This refers to thinking in terms of ‘if only’ and it leads to regrets and being locked into the past.

For example, you are a salesperson and missed out on an important sale. You then start becoming obsessed with what you could have done instead to secure the sale, but you did not do. So, you become frustrated and regretful.

Q&A (Question and Answers)

Ask the participants:

  • What could you think instead? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

Yes, you could consider what you could have done instead to secure the sale.

However, instead of focusing on the past and wishing you could go back in time, you focus on the future and use this experience as a lesson to do better the next time. So, you learn and move on.

12. Blaming others

This is also called externalizing and it means blaming others for something that was your fault (or at least your responsibility).

For example, you are a chef and set the timing of the oven wrongly, so that the cake you were cooking gets burnt. Instead of taking responsibility, you blame it on the sous-chef (your second in command) for not checking that the timing was set correctly.

Q&A (Question and Answers)

Ask the participants:

  • What could you do instead? Is there a more constructive thought process?

[Wait for answers.]

Some things you coul ddo include to:

  • You could take ownership of your mistake
  • apologize
  • do something to repair the damage (in this case you could make another cake or create another type of dessert that you can prepare quickly if short of time)
  • think of ways for avoiding the same error in the future (maybe double-check or set two timers) and move on.
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Dr Paul Symonds

Paul is a trained researcher with a PhD in wayfinding. Paul is a co-founder of Symonds training. We focus on providing high-quality training materials packages and programs for trainers, classroom teachers and HR departments.

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