By Meredith Courtney, VP of Marketing

Most leaders don’t make it to roles of influence without a moderate level of confidence and the ability to think rationally. But even the most successful, self-assured leaders may occasionally get stuck in patterns of negative thinking. Particularly in the face of pressure from market conditions, competitive threats, or complex change, even the most sophisticated executive can succumb to the realities of basic brain functioning. Under negative stress, our executive functioning and reasoning capabilities can be overpowered and dominated by our more primal emotional reactivity.

negative thinking

Cognitive psychology theories propose that our emotions and behaviors are influenced by our perception of events. Situations themselves do not necessarily determine what we feel but rather the way we interpret them. Our interpretations are guided by our core beliefs, our fundamental understandings of ourselves and the world around us. We’re not always even aware of these core beliefs, but we interpret situations through the lens of them. They come through in our thinking, particularly our automatic thoughts, or that quick, evaluative thinking that goes through our head. Under stress, any maladaptive core beliefs might rear their ugly head, and our thinking might not always be filtered by reasoning.

Beyond just “negative thinking,” we may be susceptible to what psychologists refer to as common patterns of cognitive distortions. These are thinking errors that may be completely untrue or be exaggerated versions of the truth. Here are just a few of these common mistakes in thinking:

1 – Catastrophizing: "Predicting the future" negatively without weighing more logical outcomes

2 – Magnification/minimization: In evaluating one’s self, another person, or a situation, unreasonably magnifying the negative or minimizing the positive

3 – Personalization: Believing negative outcomes are because of you, without considering more plausible reasons

4 – Mental filter: Focusing on one negative detail rather than the whole picture

(Adapted from Beck, 1976)

Even the most rational leader may experience these cognitive distortions from time to time. Take these scenarios:

1) John was under pressure to lead his team to execute a new strategy. In a meeting with his direct reports, one of his team members brought up a potential roadblock. The rest of the team members went on to report positive news about progress being made, but John was stuck ruminating about the potential consequences of report #1, thinking, “We’ll never get over this hurdle, I don’t know if we can deliver.”

2) Sharon was in a sales leadership role, and her team reported mediocre results last quarter. Despite her most recent performance review which highlighted praise and accolades from her executive team on her efforts to build a skilled team and break down silos with other parts of the organization, she now can’t help but think, “My job is on the line.”

3) One of Kelly’s direct reports made an error in a client communication. Thankfully, the impact was minimal, and it was clear to everyone that it was genuinely a mistake; the client was understanding and no harm was done to the relationship. However, Kelly now finds herself thinking this team member is incompetent, distrusting what she says in meetings and remarking to others that she’s a threat to the success of their organization. Another one of Kelly’s team members points out that a similar scenario unfolded a few years ago, when Kelly ultimately had another team member demoted for a seemingly minor mistake.

We all experience self-doubt and, as leaders, we need to take accountability for the results of our team. But when we start to experience recurring patterns of distorted thinking, they can impact our ability to lead with confidence, clarity, and focus. When we start to amplify these thoughts in our communication with employees, peers, supervisors, or even customers, they can undermine our executive presence.

One of our Bates executive coaches proposes that we all have a “talk track” - words and phrases we use all the time without even being aware of them or their impact. For instance, one of her clients routinely used the word “disaster” to describe projects or situations. If the leader thought every project was really a “disaster,” what was that saying to his team about their capabilities? Without realizing it, this “talk track” became a part of this leader’s ability to drive results. Where do these sorts of “talk tracks” come from? From a cognitive perspective, you might say it’s driven by our internal “thought track.”

How can you become more conscious of your “thought track” and any patterns of negative thinking that may be diminishing your impact as a leader? Here are three tips:

1. Ask yourself, “What was going through my mind just then?” In the moment, if you notice yourself feeling particularly discouraged, frustrated, or emotional during a meeting or conversation – ask yourself this simple question. Write down the exact “automatic thought” as best you can. It’s best to do this as quickly as possible so as not to let the emotional side of the experience sway your memory of it.

2. Evaluate and challenge the thought. Take a rational, scientific approach to challenging the thought. What’s the evidence to support your thinking? Are there more logical explanations for the situation? Can you compare situations or experiences from the past to the current? Be as specific as you can. For instance, in the example above, thinking “we’ll never get over this hurdle” might be challenged with evidence such as “In 2010, I led the XYZ project, which resulted in a 30% revenue increase for my division,” or “When our team has faced challenges like this in the past, our strengths in _______ and ______ have helped us overcome them.” Write this evidence down, to have on hand when you find yourself having similar thoughts in the future.

3. Ask others for feedback. The best way to gain awareness of what you’re amplifying as a leader is by simply asking other people who see you in action. In our coaching and leadership development programs, we’ve found the most effective way to gather stakeholder feedback is through a 360 assessment.  In our ExPI assessment, which measures leadership influence and executive presence, one of the facets we measure is Restraint, defined as the leader’s ability to “display a calm disposition, characterized by reasonableness and by avoidance of emotional extremes or impulsiveness.” The ability to demonstrate Restraint is a reflection of your ability to respond rather than react. It promotes calm and thoughtful action in the face of challenges. Important stakeholders, especially your direct reports, probably won’t give you unsolicited feedback if there’s a deficit here. A formal 360 survey gives them an anonymous outlet for sharing perspectives.

As you move into more influential roles, you stand on a bigger stage, and your executive presence becomes more important then ever. Don't let negative thinking or "thought tracks" undermine your ability to drive business results.

Meredith Courtney is VP of Marketing for Bates, and has completed graduate training in Counseling Psychology with a focus in Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology. E-mail her at 

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