Twisted Team Thinking

In “The Feeling Good Handbook” David D. Burns lists ten forms of cognitive distortions which can lead to increasing pathology. If you are a coach, you might be familiar with them on the level of the individual. But as we often focus more on the team level, it’s interesting to look at them from that particular point of view as well. These ways of thinking can undermine team morale and cause one or more of the following issues:

  • Fear of taking risks
  • Fear of commitment
  • Lack of trust
  • Decreased communication
  • Decreased impetus for change


Ten Types of Twisted Team Thinking

The ten distortions are thus:

  1. All-or-nothing Thinking: A small setback is used to question the whole endeavor. “We didn’t achieve the sprint goal! Let’s not do Scrum anymore.” or “We broke the WiP limit yesterday. Let’s abolish limits in general.”
  2. Overgeneralization: One negative event is seen as a link in a never-ending chain of events. “We delivered component x late. Everybody in our company thinks we never ship anything on time.” or “Our CIO declined to do y. He never cooperates. We shouldn’t even ask him anymore.”
  3. Mental Filter: A team focuses on the one thing that went wrong, disregarding the many things that went right. “We successfully showed three new pieces of functionality during our Review, but an error message popped up when Greg pressed a button. We’re sure our stakeholders think we are useless.”
  4. Discounting the positive: No value is given to positive achievements. Instead, they are being downplayed. “Anybody could have done what we did there. That wasn’t special.”
  5. Jumping to Conclusions: This distortion can manifest in two different forms. “Mind reading” where a person’s actions are being interpreted negatively without checking for confirmation. “The CEO said nothing about our presentation. He hates us.” The second is “Fortune Telling”. Without experimenting it is assumed that an event in the future will turn out badly. “The next iteration is going to be a disaster.”
  6. Magnification: Challenges are blown out of proportion. “We are drowning in problems.” or “Nothing is going right.”
  7. Emotional Reasoning: Subjective feelings are taken at face value and treated as if they were definitely real. “It feels like we aren’t making any progress. We might as well stop the whole thing.” or “This situation feels so frustrating. There’s no solution to it.”
  8. Should Statements: Things should be the way the team expects them to be without validation of those expectations. “We should get more support from upper management.” or “Our stakeholders should celebrate us more.” or We shouldn’t be so sloppy with our unit tests.”
  9. Labelling: Instead of focusing on behavior labels are attached to a person or thing which leads to mental rigidity. “Our application crashed during the Review. We are worthless losers.” or “The head of our department is a control freak.”
  10. Personalization and Blame: A person or several persons (for example the team itself) is being held accountable for something which isn’t exclusively under their control. “Our company lost revenue this quarter. It’s probably because we’re such a lousy team.” or “Our application wasn’t ready in time for the marketing launch. It was all the other team’s fault.”


How to Address the Ten Distortions of Team Thinking

These ten extreme ways of thinking can be addressed in the following ways:

  • asking if your team would talk about another team in the same way (when they’re talking negatively about themselves)
  • asking for something more nuanced than black and white thinking (“On a scale of one through ten, how do you think the meeting went?”)
  • finding alternative ways of looking at the situation (“Is it possible that your view might be negatively biased and other people would have seen the situation differently?”)
  • simply asking “How helpful is that feeling right now?”.

If only individuals show this type of thinking, start one-on-one sessions with this person before they bring down the whole group.

It’s important to point out that these are extreme reactions and don’t necessarily conform to reality. Depending on the situation you should probably stop them right when they’re happening and identify them as negative distortions. In the next step check whether there’s any available evidence to back up these extreme views, for example by asking “How do you know that’s true?”. Often, teams will cite prior experience as the reason for their reaction. It’s useful to then ask how they know that this time won’t be different. Maybe they are in for a small experiment just to see how it goes this time? You can collect different approaches with the team and decide on the best one. Or you can turn it around and see how you can make sure to definitely fail by using the Liberating Structure TRIZ.
You can find more information in:

Burns, David D. (1999), The Feeling Good Handbook, Plume

Spry, Dorothy (2010), Cognitive Behavioural Coaching Pocketbook, Management Pocketbooks