In September last year I began a course in psychotherapy and counselling at Regents University. Aside from driving my friends mad with psychoanalytic readings of every small event in my life, more and more the programme has begun to make me re-think work and our relationship to it. It seems that the workplace, in the ‘family’ we exist in from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, under pressure and with numerous complex relationships to negotiate, is a site of enormous psychological tension.
Whilst catching up on some reading over Christmas, I came across the work of Aaron Beck, American psychiatrist and father of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. In particular, his work on illogical thought processes seems to me to be enormously useful to consider in the work context. Beck identified a number of illogical thought processes which he argued often lead to negative feelings and behaviours:
Sometimes, we all jump to conclusions based on irrelevant or insufficient evidence. Think about this in a work context. Have you ever decided that a project is pointless because of one small set back? And do you continue to believe that all such projects are pointless, because of one bad experience during one project?
It’s surprisingly easy to focus on a single aspect of a situation and ignore others. You are sitting in your annual review, hearing lots of positive feedback about your team working, your work ethic and your technical talent. Then your manager suggests you could work on your client facing skills. When you leave the meeting, do you focus on all the positive feedback, or do you dwell on the one piece of criticism, feeling gloomy and useless?
Do you ever exaggerate the importance of undesirable events? Imagine you are running a large and complex project. It’s going well and your manager is pleased with you. However, you make one small mistake, omitting to send an important email. This causes a slight delay to the project. Do you forget about it and move on, or do you lie awake at night, mulling over the terrible mistake you made and how useless you are to have made it?
In contrast, we often underplay the significance of a positive event. For example, suppose the senior partner sends you an email to say ‘well done’ on leading a meeting with a client. Perhaps, instead of feeling pleased, you think that leading a meeting is trivial, and this feedback is meaningless.
This is when we draw broad negative conclusions on the basis of a single insignificant event. For example, you write a report for a board member and she points out a couple of typos. From this you conclude that you are a terrible writer and not capable of producing reports of the necessary quality for board members.
This common thought process involves attributing the negative feelings of others to yourself. E.g., your boss looks really cross when she comes into the room, so you immediately believe she must be cross with you.
Reading through this list, I’m sure all if us will recognise one or more familiar patterns of thinking. When these thoughts surface, they make us feel bad, and often, in the pressurised work environment, make us behave badly; you might avoid or put off certain types of work because you feel useless, or obstruct a project because you are sure it will fail. Changing these thought patterns is tough. However, the first step is to recognise them when they appear and to understand how these, perhaps, irrational thoughts are affecting your feelings and behaviour.
You can read more about Aaron Beck and his work here.