Understanding these Foundations of Therapy Can Transform Your Experience at Work
CBT Therapy Basics that will make you a better employee and manager
“You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius
It’s estimated that we will spend 90,000 hours at work, close to ⅓ of our lives. No matter how much we may love our jobs, how great our co-workers, partners, friends, and kids are, or how emotionally intelligent we may be, difficult emotions are bound to arise, whether due to the demands of the job, conflict with peers, or extenuating circumstances in our personal lives.
Therapy provides a helpful guide for dealing with uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, depression, and shame in our personal lives, but these tools and techniques can also be leveraged in the workplace.
By learning more about the foundations of therapy, in particular Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), you can not only better manage your own mental state, but you can also play a proactive role in helping your co-workers, and your direct reports manage their own.
More on the overlap between managers and therapists here
Therapy starts with the foundational assumptions that 1) no one is broken, 2) the past does not equal the future and, given 1) & 2), 3) change is always possible. Generally therapy is about the loss and recovery of a) human connection and b) a sense of meaning in life.
Often, patients begin therapy believing in unhelpful narratives about themselves or their problems, and it is a therapists job to help patients see their thought patterns and how they contribute to their problems, with more clarity. The ultimate goal is for patients to take responsibility for their actions and to feel empowered to change their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviour.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a mode of therapy that has the most application to managing teams, so I will focus on that style here. CBT is based on a premise that thoughts, opinions, emotions, and beliefs are not true or factual. CBT is:
- Solution focused (therapists try to elicit action steps from patients, and focus on developing new meanings and interpretations of events that will positively serve patients)
- Patient centered (therapists avoid making assumptions and sharing their opinions)
- Collaborative (therapists help patients listen to what their pain is trying to tell them, but recognize change has to be led by the patient)
- Present centered (therapists actively listen and stay open to the experience being shared without jumping to conclusions)
The Goal in CBT is to:
- identify a trigger/event (A), whether real or perceived,
- reflect on the beliefs/thoughts/emotions (B) that arise from that trigger, and
- evaluate how thoughts and beliefs (B) influence the patient’s actions ©.
- consider how (B) could be adjusted to have a more desirable outcome ©
In other words, A+B=C, also known as the ABC Technique. Our thoughts and beliefs about an event (B) are often developed over a lifetime and influenced by a variety of factors, including our culture and our context. Our interpretations (B), of an event (A), are subject to all sorts of cognitive distortions and limiting beliefs.
Common Cognitive Distortions in the Workplace:
- Jumping to conclusions: A person who jumps to conclusions thinks they know what another person is feeling and thinking (without any evidence), and exactly why they act the way they do, acting as if they could read their mind.
- Filtering: A person who is filtering takes negative details and magnifies them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. A person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively, ignoring anything positive, so that their vision of reality becomes distorted.
- Generalizing: A person who is generalizing draws a universal conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens just once, they expect it to happen over and over again. For instance, if an employee gets constructive feedback, they conclude they aren’t doing anything right.
- Personalizing: A person who is personalizing believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to them. They literally take everything personally, even when something is not meant in that way. A person who personalizes will also compare themselves to others, trying to determine who is smarter, more successful, etc.
- Polarized Thinking: A person with polarized thinking places people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray. This is also known as black-and-white thinking. Someone may believe they have to be perfect or else they’re a failure — there is no middle ground.
- “Should”ing: Should statements (“I should find time to work on weekends”) manifest as rules about a person thinks they should behave. They feel guilty when they violate their own rules. A person may believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts. If someone buys into these rules for themselves, they’ll find that people who break the rules make them angry, frustrated, and/or resentful.
- Emotional Reasoning: “If I feel that way, it must be true.” Whatever a person is feeling is believed to be true automatically, without regard to the evidence. If a person feels stupid and boring, then they must be stupid and boring. Emotional reasoning is when a person’s emotions takes over our thinking entirely, blotting out all rationality and logic.
You can read more about 50 common cognitive distortions here.
“People and things do not upset us. Rather we upset ourselves by believing they can upset us.”
— Albert Ellis, creator of the ABC Technique.
Improving Our Thoughts & Beliefs
In CBT, the therapist and the patient view automatic thoughts as hypotheses that are subject to empirical verification. The therapist and the patient work together to discern whether these automatic thoughts and schemas are correct or not.
As you can imagine, any one of the cognitive distortions or limiting beliefs listed above can lead to a rise in negative emotions and self-defeating actions. To combat this, the ABC Technique includes a thought review process, after a triggering event (A):
Step 1: Look for evidence that supports your thought. Ask questions like:
- What is the evidence for this?
- How reliable is this source of information?
- Is that always true? How likely is the projected outcome?
Step 2: Look for evidence that does not support your thought. Ask questions like:
- What is the evidence against this?
- What is the best-case scenario?
- Are there examples when that’s not true?
Step 3: Identify possible errors or cognitive distortions in your thinking. Ask questions like:
- What assumptions are being made?
- Does this belief serve you?
- Did others influence this belief?
Step 4: Identify a more accurate and helpful way of seeing the situation. Ask questions like:
- What would you think if a friend was going through the same thing?
- What counter statements can you begin using to change belief?
- What are other possible explanations for what’s happening?
Step 5: Notice and record any effects of the new thought on your feelings and behaviors. Help shine a light on any patterns or trends if this is a recurring theme.
You too can use the ABC Thought Review technique when you or a team member is struggling with an issue. Remember that our thoughts (B) following a trigger (A), are within our control, and impact our actions ©. Being able to pause and engage in a thought review before acting can lead to more productive and favourable outcomes.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
— William James
In addition to the Thought Review technique described above, these foundations have many (six are highlighted here) applications to managing teams, any of which you can start practicing starting today!
I hope you found some of these tips helpful. If you want to learn more, I’ve created an online course going into this topic in more depth.
Other posts: Education foundations for the workplace
If you’d like to learn more about therapy, I recommend the following resources:
Brooklyn based Start-Up Advisor, Impact Investor, Filmmaker, Writer, and Leadership Coach. I focus my time on the future of learning and the future of work.