Emotional reasoning and other cognitive distortions

It’s always interesting coming back to pieces that I’ve covered in the past and seeing how a few years later, I’m engaging with them in a different way.

Recently, this has happened to me with:

The Coddling of the American Mind

Which I was inspired to re-read after hearing Jonathan Haidt’s interview on the Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast promoting his new book of the same name.

Two things struck me reading the post I wrote about it 3 years ago:

1. I rarely make predictions in this blog, but boy I got this one right

Here’s an excerpt from my old post explaining my “odd” decision to cover a piece like that in an organization-oriented blog:

But why am I covering a piece about campus culture in a blog about business organizational effectiveness? I’m glad you asked:

*) Today’s college culture problems are tomorrow’s business culture problems, as current students leave college and join the workforce, with this cultural indoctrination in mind.

*) Looking at the direction that typical “office sensitivity training programs” are headed, and the way that some related incidents are handled, some may argue that this culture has already started trickling into the work place.

*) Tech companies will be affected first as their demographic tends to skew young.

*) No matter on which side of the academic debate on “whether it’s the colleges’ job to prepare students for post-college life” you fall, this piece suggests that the skills/culture gap is widening. If colleges are not stepping up to address it (and some may argue, are making it worse), workplaces will have to.

Since then, interest in dealing with matters of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging (DIB) in business has grown exponentially…

2. While back then I was intrigued mostly by the marco-pattern, nowadays I’m interested a lot more in the nuanced cognitive distortions that are covered in the article

I’m curious about those because they are part of the “so what?”, a piece of the puzzle that is a way to address this rising organizational challenge/opportunity.

So what are “cognitive distortions”? you may ask. Well, here’s a rather pithy definition:

Tendencies or patterns of thinking or believing, that are false or inaccurate, and have the potential to cause psychological damage.

It’s that latter piece about the psychological damage that sets them apart, in my mind at least, from the broader category of cognitive biases that they are part of.

Cognitive distortions are the foundation of a psychological therapy approach known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT has identified these thinking patterns as highly correlated with disorders like depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses and developed protocols for addressing these disorders through changing these patterns of thought.

In the lightweight research that I’ve done on this topic, I couldn’t find a list of cognitive distortions that is as MECE as I would have liked. But the one that Haidt and Lukianof included in their original article, is a decent reference list that I’m going to try and keep closer by from this point on:

  • Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”
  • Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
  •  Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”
  • Catastrophizing. You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
  • Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
  • Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do — so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”
  • Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”
  • Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
  • Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
  • Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”
  • What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?,” or “What if I can’t catch my breath?”
  • Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought I’m unlovable, you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”
Emotional reasoning and other cognitive distortions

Sacrificing or Suffering? [Petriglieri]

If you’ve been following this publication for a while, you should know by now that I love distinctions.

Our lives our nuanced and subtle, but we often seek to make generalizations and abstractions that help us reduce the complexity and see the bigger picture better. However, sometimes going the other way and adding back that nuance helps just as much. Which is why I love distinctions.

And Gianpiero Petriglieri introduces us to a very powerful distinction in:

Are You Sacrificing for Your Work, or Just Suffering for It?

The core distinction is captured in the following paragraph (emphasis mine):

Not all pain and suffering, however, amount to sacrifice. The difference is not just philosophical. It is practical. Sacrifice might be hurtful and exhausting, but it is a conscious choice. Suffering is the result of feeling that we cannot slow down or else we will be shamed and lose control. Sacrifice makes us who we are. Suffering keeps us captive. When putting our bodies through hell at work, at least for a while, is worth the rewards we get and the contribution we make, it is sacrifice. But if you can come up with many reasons for hurting at work, but see little purpose in it, then it is not.

Petriglieri argues that suffering is more pervasive than sacrifice in the business realm, and hypothesizes the causes for it by contrasting the dynamic in it and those in the realm that’s often cited as having mastered sacrifice — elite athletes:

  1. Lack of discipline in seeking of and working on our limits
  2. Insufficient respect for the criticality of pace
  3. Underinvestment in seeking out the help and support needed to improve

This ponderous note is a good place to pause and reflect…

Sacrificing or Suffering? [Petriglieri]

People as Vectors [Fishkin]

Source: SparkToro

A neat post by Rand Fishkin, expanding on an analogy from a conversation between Dharmesh Shah and Elon Musk:

Why Elon Musk’s “People as Vectors” Analogy Resonates

The most useful insight from the post is explaining what we mean by the word “alignment” using this (overly-)simplistic analogy:

We can think of the people on any given team as vectors

People vectors have both direction and magnitude

When people all work in precisely the same direction, their magnitudes are added to each other

When people have any degree of deviation, the varying directions subtract (at least somewhat) from the maximum amount of productivity that could be achieved

The original talk covered alignment in three levels:

  1. Align people with the organization’s goals.
  2. Aligning individual teams (product, marketing, sales, service, etc.) with the organization’s goals.
  3. Aligning the organization’s goals with the needs of the customer.

And Fishkin offers decomposing each further to assess the level of agreement on the following questions:

  • Why are we on this team together? (motivation)
  • For whom are we building this? (customer)
  • What are we creating? (product/service)
  • Do we have shared respect, trust, and empathy for one another?

The last one seems a bit like the odd-man-out and ties better to the next section where Fishkin lists out the things that drive/hinder getting aligned:

  • Trust
  • Agreement on values>goals or goals>values. This one was not easy for me to understand, but it seems to have to do with deeper shared beliefs that the participants have on whether “where are we going?” (goals) is more important than “how are we going to get there?” (values), or the other way around.
  • Psychological safety

Lastly, Fishkin covers the importance of emotional buy-in and why he believes “disagree & commit” hurts alignment. This is the piece on which Fishkin and I are not aligned 🙂 This may be because I support a narrower definition of “disagree & commit” which may mitigate most of the down-side that troubles Fishkin.

People as Vectors [Fishkin]

Pitfalls in Performance Feedback [Sinofsky]

Steven Sinofsky is crushing it this year penning several thoughtful posts on the performance management process that’s at the heart of so many organizations.

His latest is

Pitfalls in Performance Feedback

Where he covers, well, the common pitfalls in giving performance feedback.

The first part of the post calls out behaviors that in his opinion tend to be (wrongfully) rewarded in performance feedback:

  • Visibility of the person
  • Self-promotion
  • Handling real-time exchanges or “thinking on your feet” well
  • Heroics. Over-promising
  • Goal-setting gymnastics. Over-delivering
  • Arguing (as opposed to debating)
  • Writing skills
  • Presentation skills
  • Confrontation (as opposed to providing feedback)

The second part makes a broader observation, that a common pitfall in performance feedback has to do with its focus. Sinofsky discerns between three aspects of a work an employee does:

  1. Deliverables
  2. Process — which is poorly worded, in my opinion, and actually refers to teamwork, collaboration and overall good corporate citizenship
  3.  Style and Technique

He then argues that the rough focus of performance feedback should be ~80% deliverables, 15% process and 5% style and technique.

This deeper insight contextualizes the list in the first part and refines the argument there a bit, since it’s clear that most of the pitfalls listed in the first part have to do with “style and technique” and a handful has to do with “process”. So even if the feedback there is valid (some roles do require strong writing skills) — it should not be the primary focus of the feedback.

Pitfalls in Performance Feedback [Sinofsky]