You are stranded in the desert, severely dehydrated. Finding water is your only focus. Your survival depends on it.
In the distance you see a pool of water. The relief you feel! You imagine how the water will taste, how it will save you, no matter how warm and brackish it might be. Struggling to reach the pool – you are not realizing it’s a mirage. You are so single-minded in pursuing the illusion that you fail to see a real source of water located slightly outside your field of vision.
The information you had, while false, confirmed what you wanted to see and the path you wanted to take – so you stopped looking for more evidence and insight. In the end, your unwillingness to challenge your beliefs and assumptions compromised your survival as much as the desert conditions did.
This is a type of cognitive distortion known as a confirmation trap.
Cognitive distortions are habitual ways of thinking that are often inaccurate and negatively biased – such as filtering out the positive aspects of a situation and magnifying the negatives. These practices usually develop over time as reasonable, rational responses to adverse events.
As a leadership coach, I see many people I work with ultimately acknowledge and manage the filters and blocks that create confirmation traps and impact their engagement and effectiveness in life and on the job. These are common professional obstacles because there’s so much going on at work – changes, ambiguity, ever-shifting relationship dynamics. Why take time to look for the best answer when you have an answer that says what you want to hear and instinctively, comfortably fits your go-to cognitive approach?
Does this seem fully rational? It does until it stops working.
For example, let’s say your team has to partner on a project with colleagues you know from previous initiatives – which were not good experiences. In those instances, you felt the other group was not up to the task and routinely depended on your team to bail them out. You fear the same thing will happen again and you’re dreading it. Maybe you are convinced they aren’t smart or motivated enough to keep up with your team and they will drag you down. You feel justified keeping a distance, not fully engaging, ensuring they don’t get an opportunity to undermine your efforts. After all, this approach made the best of a bad situation last time.
As a result, you don’t look for additional information. You don’t assess whether your response last time made the situation worse, whether their processes or personnel have changed for the positive, and whether this new project may play to their strengths or reveal your team’s weaknesses. Your confirmation trap prevents you from seeking a more constructive outcome.
Let’s look at another example – and how to handle it differently. Your boss has been critical of your work recently and it’s stung, so you worry when she doesn’t respond to an important email as promptly as she usually does. You’re certain it’s a sign that she’s angry and will soon initiate ‘a big discussion’ about your performance. You sent the message believing your working relationship was souring, and her lack of response ‘proves it.’
Except, of course, it doesn’t. And you can do more than helplessly stew in your anxiety.
You have all you need to release the trap and get more of what you want. By shifting perspective and identifying more options you can take actions that will get you to a different result. You don’t have to wander aimlessly in the desert with no water!
Don’t assume. Seek relevant information
Go ahead and get clarification about timelines or expectations. For example, you can respond to your boss’s non-response with a quick message. Ask her something like, “Hey, you are normally quick in responding and I’ve not heard from you. Let me know if you need more time. What else can I share about what I sent or should I move to the next step?”
Chart a new course
When you notice you are repeating your negative patterns in a relationship, change course. Stop doing what you normally do and identify one area of common ground and build alignment on that. Focusing more attention on what unifies you, rather than trying to fill every gap, banks a bit of harmony and goodwill for the more contentious topics.
Broaden your outreach
Intentionally and deliberately seek the perspective of people who don’t agree with you. Those who see things from different perspectives and have different priorities and objectives have the potential to add new creative ideas and options. Use the opportunity to challenge each other’s assumptions and interpretations.
The confirmation trap can be a comfortable place because we all visit there and it becomes familiar. Having some intentional practices for shifting your gaze and hearing different perspectives gives you more creativity and stronger solutions.
Beki Fraser is a certified business and leadership coach who worked 15 years as an HR leader for a variety of companies. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MBA from the Yale School of Management.