Lessons for founders from CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Training



I’m a psychology major – actually social psychology was my focus – I’m always interested in what make people tick – or not – and especially in their interactions.

CBT is a form of psychological therapy. What interests me about it is that it combines aspects of behavioral and cognitive psychology. The latter, especially perception, being particular interests of mine.

So ok, what does all this psycho-babble have to do with founders? As a founder you will most likely have a C-suite title – CEO, CTO, COO et al. And C-suite execs recruit, hire, motivate, and develop talent for the company. What I’ve noticed is that few founders, Board members or advisors pay much attention to the emotional aspects of a startup. And I think that’s a mistake. Despite the emphasis on spreadsheets, coding, raising capital and other tech and financial parts of the company, your people’s emotions, and in particular their interactions, will greatly affect the company’s chances for success.

I came across this document, Cognitive Distortions from Therapist Aid LLC. They provide tools for mental health professionals. I’m going to copy of the list and annotate it with my comments.

Cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts that can influence your emotions. Everyone experiences cognitive distortions to some degree, but in their more extreme forms they can be harmful.
Magnification and Minimization: Exaggerating or minimizing the importance of events. One might believe their own achievements are unimportant, or that their mistakes are excessively important.
This is very easy to do in a startup! Engineers minimize the difficulty of fixing bugs (“we’ll have that fixed over the weekend?) and sales people magnify sales prospects (“this will be the biggest sale in the history of the company!”) Make a key part of your culture straight talk. Otherwise you will be piloting a ship with wildly incorrect navigation charts!
Catastrophizing: Seeing only the worst possible outcomes of a situation. Some of you may remember Debbie Downer from SNL. As a founder you have to avoid this behavior like the plague! Everyone in the company will be trying to get a reading on the company’s status from how the CEO or founder reacts to news – good or bad. Keep your cool! Things are never as great as they seem when things are going well, nor are they aren’t as bad as they seem when going badly.
Overgeneralization: Making broad interpretations from a single or few events. “I felt awkward during my job interview. I am always so awkward.” Encourage your team to be specific and minimize assumptions. Overgeneralizing will get in the way of finding a solution. In today’s data-driven world there’s no need to draw conclusions from too little data. If you need more data go out and get it!
Magical Thinking: The belief that acts will influence unrelated situations. “I am a good person—bad things shouldn’t happen to me.” Lots of startups have to indulge in this – “we are going to change the world AND get rich and famous in the process!” to impress investors and job candidates.  But watch out for magical thinking in your co-founders and your team. Startups are hard, most fail. Investors lose their money. You shouldn’t be a pessimist as that brings everyone down. But temper your optimism that comes to every founder with realism. Investors and others will respect you for that.
Personalization: The belief that one is responsible for events outside of their own control. “My mom is always upset. She would be fine if I did more to help her.” Athletes have good training for business: I need to do my job and not worry about things outside of my control. That’s one reason why many athletes succeed in business, aside from being very competitive.
Jumping to Conclusions: Interpreting the meaning of a situation with little or no evidence. Every startup wants to get big, fast. The original Facebook motto was “Move fast and break things.” But the big difference between a mature, established company and a startup is that startups have much, much less room for error. As someone once said to me, the most powerful words in the English language are “Wait a minute.” So help train your team to not only minimize assumptions, but not to jump to conclusions.
Mind Reading: Interpreting the thoughts and beliefs of others without adequate evidence. “She would not go on a date with me. She probably thinks I’m ugly.” This often comes up in conflicts within the company. As a CXX/founder you will have to mediate some of these. Watch out for mind-reading on the part of one group – “Sales guys just want to make money, they don’t care about the great features we in engineering are building.”
Fortune Telling: The expectation that a situation will turn out badly without adequate evidence. Actually another big difference between operating in a mature, successful company and a startup is that you will have to make decisions with far less information or evidence than execs in large companies. You need to become comfortable operating in a atmosphere of imperfect information.
Disqualifying the Positive: Recognizing only the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. One might receive many compliments on an evaluation, but focus on the single piece of negative feedback. You can flip this around and build a culture where emphasis is on the positive. Music producers are very good at this. Rather than telling the band that “That take wasn’t so hot, we need to do another one.” They will say something like “That take was great, but you know what? I think you guys can do even better. Let’s try upping the tempo just a bit after the bridge.”
“Should” Statements: The belief that things should be a certain way. “I should always be friendly.” I’ve seen “should statements” turn meetings in arguments. Rather than telling someone on your staff, “You should do X like this” try “Why don’t you considering doing X like this?” The former is too directive – it pushes someone to do something, that latter is encouraging, it pulls them along gently but firmly.
All-or-Nothing Thinking: Thinking in absolutes such as “always”, “never”, or “every”. “I never do a good enough job on anything. These are good words along with “should” to lock up and throw away the key. Startups are highly dynamic – things change and change rapidly both within the company and within its ecosystem. Look for shades of gray vs. black and white.
So this list won’t turn you into a psychotherapist, but that’s not the intent. The intent is to help you improve you interactions with your team and others.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

One thought on “Lessons for founders from CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Training”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s