Article | The Impact of Cognitive Distortion on Employee Performance

Dec 05, 2022

A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern that influences our perceptions of reality. These negative thought patterns can play a role in diminishing your motivation, lowering your self-esteem, and contributing to problems like anxiety and depression. In the workplace, cognitive distortions can impact an employee's productivity, decision-making, communication, confidence, job satisfaction, and overall well-being.

This article takes a deep dive into three types of cognitive distortions that could be affecting your team’s performance. It also discusses hypothetical examples to show how this kind of thinking affects behaviour and simple exercises that will help your team to recognize and overcome these distortions and to master their psychology.

1. Black-and-white thinking 

Black-and-white thinking is the belief that there are only two options or outcomes; for example, "I'm either a success or a failure." This type of thinking can lead to employees feeling pressure to succeed and can prevent them from taking risks or even attempting tasks.

Examples in the workplace:

  • Dwelling on mistakes and assuming you will never be able to do a particular thing well, instead of acknowledging the error and trying to move past it. 
  • Abandoning projects while they are still mere bumps in the road, due to a feeling that they are inevitably doomed to fail.
  • Believing there is little to no point in trying to achieve a promotion because we have never achieved one in the past.
  • Seeing yourself, others, or relationships in “black or white” 

How to overcome it?

As with many self-defeating thought patterns, the first step beyond black-and-white thinking is simply to acknowledge that you’re doing it. This can be hard — after all, cognitive distortions can make our thought processes, well, distorted — but taking time to consciously examine your thoughts and question extremes can help.

 Try this exercise...


2. Mind Reading and Fortune Telling

There are two ways of jumping to conclusions:

Mind reading: When you think someone is going to react in a particular way, or you believe someone is thinking things that they aren't

Fortune telling: When you predict events will unfold in a particular way, often to avoid trying something difficult

Examples in the workplace:

  • Assuming that you know what a colleague will say before you ask them something, so you assume that you’re right and don’t bother to ask them before you go on ahead and do it.
  • Assuming that a colleague will say no to asking for help or support.
  • Jumping to conclusions based on limited information.

How to overcome it?

To overcome this cognitive distortion, take a moment to consider the facts before you make a decision. Ask questions and challenge your initial assumptions:

3. Mental Filter / Disqualifying the positive

The mental filter distortion focuses on a single negative piece of information and excludes all the positive ones. The mental filter can foster a decidedly pessimistic view of everything around you by focusing only on the negative. 

On the flip side, the “Disqualifying the Positive” distortion acknowledges positive experiences but rejects them instead of embracing them. 

Examples in the workplace:

  • A person who receives a positive review at work might reject the idea that they are a competent employee and attribute the positive review to political correctness, or to their boss simply not wanting to talk about their employee’s performance problems. This is an especially malignant distortion since it can facilitate the continuation of negative thought patterns even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.
  • Anyone who experiences or has experienced "Imposter Syndrome," is likely viewing life through a mental filter distortion.

How to overcome it?

Answer these questions…


How can we change our negative thinking styles? 

  1. 🏃 Challenge: Your thoughts aren't necessarily the truth so challenge them: "How do I know that they think I’m incompetent? "What percentage can be attributed to things outside my control/ luck/ my hard work?"
  2. 🔎Look for evidence for and against the thoughts: Play detective and question the evidence, "Where is the evidence that they don’t like me? Is there evidence that they do like me? Does the evidence suggest my thoughts don’t match reality?" It may help to ask others for advice when looking for evidence because it is easy to become stuck in one style of thinking. With practice, you should find that it’s easier to see both sides of the story.

  3. 🏷️ Label your thoughts: Label your thought patterns using the kind of terminology stated above and acknowledge that these thoughts are happening, “Here’s catastrophising!”. Identifying and labeling your thoughts is helpful as it distances them and reduces the impact they have on you.

  4. 👍 Accept but don't obsess: Accept that your mind is just looking out for you and your survival. Thank your mind for doing its job, and move forward doing what you need to do.

Cognitive distortions are common thought patterns that can have a negative impact on our perceptions of reality. If you find yourself falling into any of these thought patterns, try to take a step back and reframe your thoughts in a more positive light. Remember that you are not defined by your mistakes or by one bad day; you are capable of so much more than that.


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