Help Your Employees Break the Cycle of Negative Thought

Learning to turn off those all-too-common negative thoughts makes employees more resilient and better able to cope with change and stress.

Help Your Employees Break the Cycle of Negative Thought

For too many employees, negative thoughts are the norm, not the exception. Unfortunately, most people’s brains are innately wired to react that way, and there’s science to back up that assertion. But the good news is that most of your negative thoughts/conclusions are unfounded, and there are strategies you can employ to break the cycle of negativity and become a more resilient and engaged employee.

That’s the message from David Collins, president and chief executive officer of the TRACOM Group, a consulting firm that specializes in developing employees’ soft and social-intelligence skills — especially resilience.

“Essentially, we’re usually our own worst enemy,” Collins says. “Most of us do a ton of self-talk — negative words we speak to ourselves inside our heads. In essence, it’s a leftover from back in the day when we had to face threats all around us at the watering hole. Nature rewarded people who were good at evaluating threats. So seeking out and avoiding threats is hugely hard-wired into our brains. But they often lead us to conclusions that aren’t correct.”

Science confirms this cranial bias toward negativity. Studies show that we average 300 to 1,000 words a minute of self-talk, and the vast majority are negative thoughts. In addition, 62 percent of the words in the dictionary that describe emotion are geared toward a negative perspective, Collins says.

The real problem is that all those self-sabotaging talks lead to a tremendous amount of stress. Even worse, if you’re in a management role, they can have a cascade effect and flow down onto your team. Conversely, resilient leaders are more likely to have resilient teams who are more engaged, Collins says.

Be More Resilient

Developing more resilient employees should be a higher priority because resilient employees are better at supporting and dealing with change in the workplace and can be a valuable influence on others during stressful times. In fact, TRACOM Group data shows that people with good resiliency skills are 15% more actively supportive of change when it occurs — an important consideration in today’s turbulent and evermore-demanding workplace. Moreover, they’re 14% more likely to stay engaged during stressful periods.

“Resiliency is a foundation skill that interconnects with so many things inside companies, it’s almost scary,” Collins says. “Part of resilience is understanding that negative bias that we use to beat ourselves up. We need to learn how to program our brains to react differently — intercept those thoughts and program ourselves to produce a more realistic response.”

Years of research performed by Collins and his team have identified key factors that lead to resilience, as well as a diagnostics tool that measures resilience.

“We use that tool to diagnose where employees’ strengths are and what areas need improvement,” he says.

The tool measures things such as realistic optimism, personal beliefs, self-assurance and self-composure, problem-solving skills, and social support.

“People with strengths in these areas have more resilience,” Collins says. “In essence, the tool gives them a report and provides specific strategies for improving things.”

Those strategies primarily center on two things: teaching people to automatically challenge their negative thinking and resulting behavior and how to develop more realistic responses that can replace those negative thoughts. The latter helps them better understand that their personal fears and doubts usually aren’t realistic or imminent, Collins says.

“Most training in today’s marketplace is process-oriented — how to do something, such as coaching or sales training, for example,” he says. “But in the area of resilience, we’re dealing with something very different than a process. We’re trying to understand a mindset and why people do what they do. Most of us are oblivious to what we do and how we act on a daily basis because our brains operate on a subconscious level. We elevate that to people’s attention.”

Not Mission Impossible

Collins says there are eight recognizable patterns of negative thought, and they’re all very predictable. Better yet, it’s not that difficult to break the cycle. 

“We teach people to recognize the pattern and escape from it,” he says. “It’s not that hard to do once you become aware of it.” 

The most effective way to avoid those negative thoughts is to work on changing just one of the recognizable patterns. Just like breaking a big job into smaller chunks makes it seem more doable, working on one area of negativity creates a “halo” or “spillover” effect that makes it easier to improve in other areas, too, Collins says.

In effect, the training teaches people how to ignore the emotional, “fight-or-flight” part of their brain in favor of the more logical part. The emotional part of the brain tends to kick in first, but resilient people are able to catch the emotional brain in action, turn it off, and use the logical part of the brain instead.

“Instead of thinking, for example, that your new boss hates you, you train yourself to look at the situation as an opportunity to learn new things and operate differently,” Collins says. “You reframe the negative thoughts — replace them with something more realistic.”

And if you think you’re crazy for having those nasty little negative self-talks constantly pop up in your brain, relax — there’s strength in numbers.

“It’s amazing how many people come up to us on breaks during our training classes and tell us they thought they were the only ones who have conversations like that in their heads,” Collins says.

But with a bit of training, you can make them the exception, not the norm.


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