7 Unhelpful Thinking Styles


The way we think has a big influence on how we feel and act. Our thoughts about ourselves and the world, which are often automatic and habitual, cause us to experience certain emotions. These feelings then trigger us to behave in particular ways.

This is a foundational principle of what’s called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a type of therapeutic approach that focuses on the powerful link between thinking, feeling and acting. The basic idea is that if we can challenge and change our underlying (and unhelpful) thinking styles, then we can shift the related (and unwanted) feelings and behaviors. And although this concept originated in a therapeutic context, it’s starting to gain wider awareness and application within the areas of business and leadership development.

How does it relate to leadership? Many leaders want to shift some of their feelings and actions in order to be more impactful and influential. For example, leaders often want to feel more confident, communicate more assertively, navigate conflict with less anxiety, or respond more calmly under pressure. To do any of this requires more than just reading about the latest leadership best practices. It requires that leaders go deeper to understand what thinking styles might be influencing their behavior, and explore how they might alter their thinking to promote more desired feelings and actions.

Which of these common unhelpful thinking styles tends to dominate your thoughts most often?

All or Nothing: This thinking style, also referred to as black and white thinking, focuses on the extreme ends of a spectrum. It doesn’t account for any middle ground, compromise or balance. Examples of this for leaders could be represented by these scripts: “If I’m going to help, I’ll have to take the reigns completely,” or “Defending my point of view always means I’ll need to be aggressive,” or “Being committed to my work means my health will have to take a back seat.”

Catastrophizing: This type of thinking views situations as far worse than they actually are. It often shows up when leaders are in the midst of a difficult situation or are anticipating something that may be challenging. It could sound like the following: “This initiative isn’t producing early results. It’s going to totally fail and the company might go under,” or “My boss wants to give me feedback. I bet it’s going to be negative. Ugg, I might even get fired.”

Minimization: Some high achieving leaders have a tendency to ignore or downplay their successes and only focus on areas of improvement. Leaders with this thinking style miss an opportunity to acknowledge what they’ve already accomplished. If they’d pause to celebrate successes along the way, they could benefit from additional positive momentum and confidence.

Should-ing: “I should be farther along than I am.” “I should have done it that way instead.” “He should be handling this better.” Any of these sound familiar? Be on the look out for “shoulds” in your thinking or language. These statements typically represent an overly judgmental or critical perspective, whether directed at self or others. As a result, we’re left feeling deflated, incapable, or frustrated.

Over-Generalizing: This thinking style uses one particular situation or event as evidence of a greater pattern or conclusion. For example, if a leader goes through a particularly tough situation, they might overgeneralize to “Nothing good ever happens to me.” Or, if a young professional is turned-down by a potential mentor, they may overgeneralize to “No one wants to support my growth.”

Mind Reading: Leaders caught in mind reading imagine that they know what others are thinking. It can be really unhelpful, especially if a leader imagines that a colleague is thinking something negative, opposing or critical.  This causes the leader to interact with that person in defensive, aggressive, or less confident ways.

Labeling: This involves assigning an unhelpful label to ourselves or others. These labels reflect something about the supposed identity of a person, such as “I’m a failure,” “They’re incompetent,” or “I’m a bad leader.” Because these statements are so conclusive and all encompassing in nature, they don’t leave room for growth and change. When we label ourselves, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we label others, we start treating them in ways that can also create the reality the label claims to see.