Having served as advisors, coaches, mentors and cheerleaders, HR pros have proved crucial to their organizations, especially over the last few years. Their perspectives, decisions and actions can have far-reaching effects, Jacob Goldstein, a guest lecturer in communications at Northwestern University, told SHRM 2022 attendees, as he laid out a new paradigm of positive strategies to overcome negative thinking.
In “Escaping Our ‘Thinking Traps’ - Creating a Culture of Psychological Safety,” Goldstein, founder and executive director of The Leadership Laboratory, talked about how to curtail troublesome ideation that can result from the stress and responsibility of HR work.
Positive psychology and psychological safety
It’s human nature to scan the environment and look for things that are broken, things that aren’t working, Goldstein said. Positive psychology, on the other hand, invites new questions, like “What is working?” Goldstein emphasized that, while the concept of positive psychology may seem simplistic and self-explanatory, it requires a significant change in perspective.
A second concept, psychological safety, means “I feel comfortable to speak my mind, to challenge the status quo, to share what I'm thinking and feeling,” and this can be far more elusive to attain, he said.
To use positive psychology and create an environment of psychological safety means first overcoming defeatist mindsets, or thinking traps, Goldstein said.
Identify thinking traps
In what he dubbed the “mind reading trap,” Goldstein said we build stories around assumptions, assuming we know another person’s thoughts and feelings, and assuming another person knows ours. The thinking goes: “The CHRO is overwhelmed with work, so asking for input on this project would probably just annoy or distract them … so, I won't ask for their input.”
In what he called the “me trap,” we believe we’re the sole cause of the problem. “It's all my fault that I can't make this work. I'm not good enough. I'm letting down everyone on the team.” He said HR pros falling into this trap wind up bearing the full weight of blame — and the negative energy that goes with it.
The exact opposite, the “them trap,” says that everyone else is to blame. For example, an HR pro might say, “There’s no way we'll get this engagement survey completed in time because the leaders aren't plugging it enough and it’s the end of the quarter.”
Goldstein said “you know this one already — 'the sky is falling!'” It’s the “catastrophizing trap.” This wastes time and energy ruminating on outrageous possibilities. Meanwhile, he said, statistically the likelihood that the worst case is going to happen is equal to the likelihood that the best case is going to happen.
And, of course, there’s the “helplessness trap,” where, he said, we believe we have no control. “That's it, I guess. With the Great Resignation, everyone on the team is leaving soon. [There's] nothing I can do to make sure people are engaged.”
After having expanded the vocabulary and understanding around these everyday thinking traps, Goldstein put more questions to the rapt audience of talent professionals. “Which of these thinking traps have you observed in yourself and your team? What are the escape routes to help yourselves and others break free?”
Strategies for escape
Noting that thinking traps can diminish the reach and impact of any organizational effort, Goldstein said it’s possible to cultivate healthy workplace environments by leveraging what he called “evidence,” “reframe” and “plan” strategies.
First, he suggested the evidence strategy to counterbalance the emotion of thinking traps. This strategy compares hard evidence to stories we tell ourselves, like “I'm letting down everyone on the team.” Looking for evidence can help disprove inaccuracies and cross them off the list of things to worry about.
Then, there's the reframe strategy. Incredibly beneficial, Goldstein said, it checks for the silver lining, or a positive or alternative viewpoint. “You made a mistake, so you find a way to make it right.” This strategy is energized by finding the upside, and shows investment, care and accountability.
And the plan strategy sets up actions to take in the event of an undesirable outcome. “I'm worried about this, so let me put together a plan. If this happens, here's what I'm going to do. If X happens, then Y.”
Goldstein encouraged conference attendees to put these strategies to use: Lean on the evidence strategy for real, contextual data when trapped in defeatist thinking, the reframe strategy to see a situation from another perspective, and engage the plan strategy ahead of that next worrisome scenario — if it comes to fruition.
Through positive psychology and psychological safety, and by intentional and consistent guidance of thoughts and language on the parts of individuals and teams, it’s possible to cultivate healthy workplace environments, Goldstein said.