Navigating Cognitive Distortions in the Workplace

By TERRA Staffing Group

Posted on February 27, 2024

Photo of supervisor sitting down with employee with cognitive distortion.

Investing in employees and providing support is just good business.   

But as a leader, it can be hard to figure out when your team needs help or what kind of help works best, especially when they’re struggling with negative thought patterns. 

In a recent HR HotSpot webinar, Aaron Goldstein, Partner at Dorsey & Whitney LLP and expert in employment law, talked about common distorted thinking patterns—cognitive distortions—that can occur in the workplace. 

The good news is that there are ways employers can support their teams and address performance issues.  

His suggestion? By adopting the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) process. 

Rather than relying solely on conventional annual reviews, Aaron recommends employers have regular, documented performance check-ins with all employees, including top performers.  

That way, both parties have a clear understanding of expectations and can stay on track with performance goals. And it gives employers an opportunity to notice any cognitive distortions employees might have that could be hindering their performance. 

How Cognitive Distortions Show Up in the Workplace 

During the webinar, Aaron broke down the way these common distortions show up in the workplace. 

Polarized Thinking: This happens when employees use language that is extreme. You may hear, “You never” or “You always.” For example, “You always criticize my work,” or “You never give me positive feedback.” 

Catastrophizing: Employees who jump to the most negative conclusion may be catastrophizing. For example, an employee who makes a mistake immediately thinks it’s the end of the world, regardless of evidence. E.g., “I have no chance to succeed.” 

Personalization: This occurs in employees who take things very personally, even if something has nothing to do with them. For instance, someone who personalizes might believe a co-worker or supervisor doesn’t like them as opposed to that person just having a rough day. 

Mind Reading: Employees who make assumptions about the thoughts and intentions of others may be mind-reading. 

Emotional Reasoning: When employees let their feelings dictate what they think is true and predict what will happen in the future, they are relying on emotional reasoning.  

How to Overcome Cognitive Distortions and Enhancing Performance Management  

Aaron shared some ways employees can address negative thought patterns and enhance performance management.  

Have Regular Check-ins: Don’t rely solely on annual reviews. Schedule consistent check-ins to engage employees and keep them informed about performance. (And be sure to document key discussion points, action items, and follow-up plans.) 

Foster Open Communication: Encourage employees to share their thoughts, ideas, questions, or concerns. Have an open-door policy to help foster a sense of safety and trust.  

Demonstrate Curiosity: The antidote to judgment is “tell me more.” When you’re curious, it shows that you’re interested in learning more about the other person. People feel less judged, more heard and it can go a long way in cultivating inclusivity in the workplace.  

Depersonalize Feedback: Focus on the work, not the person. Be clear and specific about how employees can improve and give practical steps to help them succeed. 

When leaders demonstrate a desire to help employees succeed, it makes the team feel recognized, supported, and motivated to improve their performance. By following Aaron’s advice, employers can promote a workplace where people are on the same page, feeling valued, and growing together. 

If you’re interested in more insight on how employers can support their teams, watch the full video here.    

Interested in more employer resources? Check out our Employer Resource Center. We have an archive of on-demand HR webinars, tools and articles to help you navigate various workplace challenges. 

Categories: HR and Management Advice

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