7 Thinking Traps

After working with hundreds of leaders, we’ve identified the 7 most common thinking traps that leaders encounter. What’s your trap, and more importantly, how can you overcome it?
neon sign saying, 'think about things differently'

The 7 Thinking Traps

As a leader, you are not just responsible for your performance, but the performance of your team. With so much riding on you, it’s easy to get caught up in projects and meetings without taking the time to consider your successes and where you may be falling short.

There are areas where you’re getting stuck. There are thinking traps that you may not even know you’re falling into.

After working with hundreds of leaders, we’ve identified the 7 most common thinking traps that leaders encounter.

What’s your trap, and more importantly, how can you overcome it?

Thinking Trap #1: Tunnel Vision

What’s the Thinking Trap?

In the midst of a packed schedule and back-to-back meetings, leaders often fall into the trap of simply crossing items off of their to-do list. While this may sound like a systematic approach to getting things done efficiently, it also prevents them from taking the necessary time for strategic development, goal and vision setting, and even personal development.

They are so neck-deep working on the day-to-day of their business that they fail to lift their heads up and see the bigger picture.

On a personal level, while this way of life appears to be ‘efficient’, what we notice is a level of numbness and disconnection that tends to settle in. Emotional and strategic acuity is dulled and the focus is retargeted to tasks over relationships, experiences or growth. Leaders in this state of being often report that they feel like life is just passing them by and that their main responsibility winds up being just keeping up.

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Aaron is a highly driven entrepreneur who runs a software company out of Buffalo, NY. He has 3 young children and an incredibly supportive wife. When he came to coaching he was consumed with his task list and was interested in learning ways to increase his efficiency. He wanted to figure out how to get more done in less time.

His phone never left his side. He kept it with him when he ate, when he watched his boys play soccer, when he drove and when he slept. His wife often complained that he wasn’t a good listener and that he was always distracted. His kids often acted out and his reaction was to punish them by taking away their computer privileges. He shared the pressure he felt to be successful, and made sure that he always had enough cash flow to cover his expenses. He expressed that he felt like he woke up morning after morning to face the same day. He did not understand why he wasn’t further ahead given all the effort and hard work he was putting in.

What’s the Impact of Tunnel Vision?

At Work

  • Leaders lose sight of their vision for the company, and slow the implementation of critical initiatives.
  • Their team gets confused about where they are headed, and questions leadership.
  • Silos begin to form within the organization.
  • Chaos builds.

At Home

  • These leaders have a tendency to lean on rigid structure, rules and procedures to ‘get through the day’. These leaders often miss out on the fun and magic of spontaneous experiences.
  • Family relationships become strained.
  • If things do not go as planned, these leaders can become short-tempered.

What’s the Solution to Tunnel Vision?

Journaling has proven to be an extremely powerful way for leaders to focus on themselves each day – helping them to manage their emotional state, stay on task and keep sight of their vision. Among many notable advantages, journaling can be a very effective way to plan, problem solve and make critical decisions using a visual medium to gain perspective.

Time after time, we’ve heard leaders say that they deal with a barrage of information that they have to sift through each day. They are tasked with making decisions that require a clear and expansive mind. Journaling is an easy way to collect thoughts, assess options and consider all of the information available in order to be able to come up with a clear-headed and logical decision.

Once Aaron began journaling with his coach, he quickly realized how his habits were negatively affecting his ability to grow his business and his ability to have meaningful relationships at home. He discovered how much he was missing out, and how his tunnel vision was actually preventing him from reaching his goals.

Leaders who practice journaling often attest to how well it helps them work through challenges that arise, explore untapped ideas, set personal and professional goals and refocus on future objectives.

The Solution to Tunnel Vision: Journaling

Do you suffer from Tunnel Vision? Click Here to schedule time with us

Thinking Trap #2: Isolation

What’s the Thinking Trap?

One of the common traps that leaders fall into is that of shouldering the burden of success on their own. They put pressure on themselves to work on an overwhelming volume of projects and are reluctant to hand over responsibilities for fear that their standards won’t be met. They feel that no one can do the job as well as they can so they take it all on – from the smallest projects to the largest. Their attention to detail is spectacular but the amount of detail on their radar is crushing. They cannot humanly keep up, feel like no one else really cares quite as much as they do and wonder why they feel so alone.

On a personal level, these types of leaders are buried under the workload they have piled on themselves and feel resentful that they are in it alone. They feel like there is no one they can trust and are constantly searching for evidence to support this view of the world. People consistently disappoint them and so they choose to suffer the burden of responsibility on their own rather than face disappointment.

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Judy has run an international events company for over 20 years. She has a team of 46 employees – including two of her own adult children. Several team members have been with her for nearly a decade, but she doesn’t feel that anyone is prepared for a leadership position. She suspects that one of them is stealing and notices that another helped herself to two extra sick days than she was entitled to.

When she gets home every night, she is drained. Her family knows to stay out of her way until she has some time to decompress – some nights this can take hours. She wonders how long she can keep up the pace without taking a toll on her health.

What’s the Impact of Isolation?

At Work

  • A growing disconnect and mistrust occurs between the leader and his/her team.
  • Team members feel marginalized and unrecognized for their efforts.
  • The leader’s stress becomes overwhelming.

At Home

  • These leaders are exhausted and prickly – they spend a lot of time ‘in their heads.’
  • Home is just one more place where people are unable to pull their weight.
  • Family members try hard to please and feel that it all goes unnoticed.

What’s the Solution to the Isolation trap?

Extraordinary leaders recognize that they are much stronger when surrounded by a powerful team both inside and outside of their organizations. In addition to hiring strategically, they actively seek out partnerships and input from individuals who are experts in their fields, such as accountants, lawyers, coaches and strategic consultants. They rely on experts to help them see what they are unable to see and to advise them both personally and professionally.

Leaders focus their efforts on projects that energize them and leverage their core strengths.

They trust their team members and give them space to test their ideas, grow (even through failure) and ultimately make valuable contributions within the organizations.

Extraordinary leaders have acknowledged that success is not a solo effort. Both in their personal and professional lives, they have relinquished their desire to have control over every job, decision and responsibility – making them far better equipped to lead the projects and make decisions where they offer the most value.

Are you caught in the Isolation trap? Click Here to schedule time with us

Thinking Trap #3: Image Management

What’s the Thinking Trap?

Taking the blame for an unsuccessful project or a bad decision can be embarrassing, defeating and can really drive leaders to feel like their reputation and influence are at risk. Both at home and at work, leaders can easily fall into the trap of deflecting blame or taking measures to hide their mistakes. They are used to being highly successful and in complete control over every situation. When things don’t go as planned, they feel backed into a corner and find it safer to blame someone or something else for the problem.

In their mind, deflecting responsibility buys them some time to figure out how to bounce back without too much public fall out.

Their team at work can become fragmented without a clear strategic vision for growth, as it is naturally dissuaded from coming together to solve critical issues. Problems fester as they get swept under the rug rather than be addressed and resolved. On a personal level, this type of leader usually keeps his failure to himself for fear of falling off the pedestal that he has built for himself within his family. He does not want to burden his family or cause them to feel like he does not have things under control. Typically, these types of leaders begin to separate and isolate themselves to try to find a way to cope with their crises privately.

thinking Trap


Harry’s company was growing. His name was in the news as a young, brilliant entrepreneur who was taking his industry by storm. He was riding a wave of notoriety as a young maverick who wasn’t afraid to make bold moves and grow his company through acquisition.

His last acquisition did not pan out as well as the rest.

He found the company and decided that their product line would be a perfect addition to the mix. Although there was some disagreement on the product fit, he pushed it through, trusting his instinct for bargain purchases. Unfortunately, it turned out that the financials were not quite as rosy as they first appeared. He could not allow this one poor acquisition to ruin his stellar reputation. The truth is that this was a costly mistake – one that placed the entire division at risk. What would happen when the media caught wind of this mistake? His CFO was at fault – how could she make such an obvious error? She was going to have to be fired immediately.

What’s the Impact of the Image Management Trap?

At Work

  • The leader loses the trust and confidence of the team, particularly when blame is being placed inappropriately.
  • The leader is sidetracked and not focused on solutions.
  • Morale and company culture are compromised.

At Home

  • Irritation and short attention spans surface in conversation and personal interactions.
  • Less and less intimacy with friends and family members.
  • A sense of hidden self-doubt creeps in.
  • Distance from family members.

What’s the Solution to the Image Management Trap?

Extraordinary leaders take ownership for their actions and outcomes without blaming others. They recognize that admitting their mistakes makes them more human and more likely to succeed in the future. Remarkable leaders understand that there’s a direct connection between their thinking and their results; they constantly challenge their thinking and their actions, knowing that mistakes are to be expected. In addition, when mistakes occur, they tune into trusted internal and external advisors to help the entire team recover from a poor decision.

When they aren’t accomplishing what they’d like to, they ask themselves the important questions:

“What beliefs do I have that are causing significant slowdown in my progress?” and

“What excuses am I using to explain the challenges that I am facing?”

They uncover and address the underlying beliefs that contribute to their negative outcomes, which can include doubting their skills, taking on too many responsibilities alone, worrying about the future and expecting worst-case scenarios.

Thinking Trap #4: Poor Decision Making

What’s the Thinking Trap?

In a fast-paced, high-pressure work environment, leaders can fall into the trap of making decisions that don’t feel quite right. They ignore their instincts and find themselves working with people whose morals, values, and vision clash with their own. In order to move forward on an initiative with speed and determination, they will unconsciously take action that is not quite a fit with their desired outcomes.

Over time they begin to notice that they have made a series of decisions that cumulatively create a negative domino effect. These leaders often find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place, compromising their personal values in favour of moving ahead professionally. They move at a rapid clip and often leave people in their dust. They spend a lot of time repairing the damage they have created in their personal relationships.

Thinking Trap #1- Tunnel Vision


Bill was excellent at sensing emerging trends and leveraging them at the right time. He attributed his success to moving quickly and being a person who was not afraid to make a decision. He was always on the leading edge of technology and made sure that his company stayed ahead of the rest.

Over the past six weeks, he was completely focused on finalizing a strategic alliance that would have a significant impact on the bottom line. He made it his priority and made a lot of sacrifices to make the deal happen. He missed the grand opening of his wife’s art studio and declined his best friend’s 40th birthday bash weekend.

He was shocked when the owner of the company pulled the plug on the partnership at the last minute. Why did he commit so much of his time to this partnership? How didn’t he see the writing on the wall sooner? In retrospect, there were many indicators that their values were not aligned, but he wondered how he was blind to them all.

What’s the Impact of Poor Decision Making?

At Work

  • There is tension, frustration and mistrust in the organization.
  • Loyalty and retention are compromised and become a serious stress point in the organization.
  • Leadership integrity is compromised, and questioned.

At Home

  • Family members become confused and disappointed with some of the choices that this leader makes.
  • This leader’s reliability comes into question in the eyes of those that are close to him/her.
  • It is not uncommon for this leader to develop a reputation as an opportunist.

What’s the Solution to Poor Decision Making?

Extraordinary leaders don’t lose sight of what’s important to them. They make decisions that align with their priorities and choose to work with others who operate the same way. Extraordinary leaders live by their organization’s principles each and every day– they keep their promises, treat their employees with respect and act with integrity.

While they are very skilled at finding and leveraging opportunities, they only do so when the opportunity is a true fit. They lead by example, making sure that the organization’s vision and values are understood, and shared, by all team members.

At home, these leaders align themselves with a partner who shares the same moral grounding and vision for their life and family. Decisions about how the family operates are made with confidence because they are supported by a strong joint vision and personal commitment. These types of leaders live their values with every fiber of their being – demonstrating that what matters to them is not only expressed in words but in deeds.

Thinking Trap #5: Complacency

What’s the Thinking Trap?

When things are running smoothly, leaders can fall into a routine that can lead to the trap of complacency. They block off opportunities, they begin to lose their drive to challenge the status quo and they stop learning or investing in professional development. Professionally, they stick to what they know and quickly dismiss ideas that do not appear to be a strategic fit – particularly those that are too ‘wild’ or unproven.

On a personal level, this type of leader sticks to a routine that they know has worked for them in the past and does whatever they need to do to protect it. Romance can fall into a rut, friendships can fall off the map and family dynamics may become very predictable. However, this type of leader is often too complacent to notice or make an effort to improve matters.

7 thinking traps


Sam was known for his discipline and dedication. He was the type of guy who had more stamina than anyone else in his graduating class and was rewarded well for this particular strength. He got married to his high school sweetheart and had two kids. He was hired right out of university and quickly worked his way up to CFO of an international technology firm. He was thought of as a young superstar, succeeding in everything he touched.

He was taken aback when his best performer gave notice that she was leaving to ‘pursue other, more fulfilling, opportunities.’ According to Sam, this came out of left field. She couldn’t have picked a worse time to leave because he just discovered that their last quarter results were 15% lower than the same period last year. He couldn’t understand; after all, he was running with the same strategy that was so successful in the past.

On top of all this, his daughter was called into the office by the school principal for cheating on a test. Apparently, she was so stressed by the need to get As that she passed a note to her friend for help in the middle of a math test. He had no idea that she was so stressed.

What’s the Impact of Complacency?

At Work

  • The company falls behind on cultural and technological advancements.
  • There is stagnation in the growth of the organization.
  • External competition becomes a greater threat.

At Home

  • These leaders miss obvious cues that something is amiss in the family circle.
  • Kids may leverage their parents’ complacency to explore their boundaries.
  • Marital relationships can get stale and/or severed.

What’s the Solution to Complacency?

Extraordinary leaders are always on the lookout for change, improvement and opportunity. They never see success as a sign to start coasting; instead, they take continuous action to help their team move forward. They take risks, make bold decisions and leverage their success to make even bigger strides.

Extraordinary leaders take the initiative to get moving when things are seemingly at a standstill. They are tuned into the pulse of their people and make sure that the team is engaged and fully leveraged.

On a personal level, extraordinary leaders recognize opportunities to truly connect with the people that matter in their lives. While they stick to some elements of their routine, like exercising, reading and planning, they make sure to leave some time and space for spontaneous events. They also understand deeply that it is within these moments when the greatest learning and insight can take place. It is not uncommon for great business connections to be made while sitting in the stands at a soccer tournament.

Successful leaders embrace the opportunities that expose them to the possibility of making mistakes in order to succeed. They know that complacency is a slow but certain way to fail.

Thinking Trap #6: Shortsightedness

What’s the Thinking Trap?

When in survival mode, leaders may fail to see past their current state and fall into the kind of trap that allows them to deal with their immediate circumstances but prevents them from looking beyond. Their shortsightedness gives them the ability to fight fires in the present, but thwarts their vision of the future. They may have short-term goals, yet a very faint idea of what lies ahead.

On a personal level, these types of leaders tend to run from one emergency to the next. Stress levels can be very high and coping mechanisms include excessive drinking, angry outbursts, impatience and withdrawal – making it difficult for others to know how to handle these behaviors. Family members walk on eggshells around this particular leader, preferring instead to just stay out of the way.

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Barbara has been under a great deal of pressure lately. Her VP of Sales decided to quit and work for the competition and the IRS selected her company for an audit. To top things off, her most important client has threatened to switch suppliers. She has been running from one emergency to the next with barely any time to take a breath.

On Father’s Day, she completely forgot to pick up a gift for her husband or her father.

At the last minute, she decided to throw a family brunch and in her haste to prepare, she sliced her hand open. Instead of spending the time with her family, she sat in the emergency ward at the hospital texting her bookkeeper and thinking about a replacement for her VP of Sales. She was beginning to crack under the pressure.

What’s the Impact of Shortsightedness?

At Work

  • Leaders are unprepared for future opportunities and challenges
  • A high degree of turnover adds to the constant chaos.
  • They are unable to mobilize appropriate resources where they are needed.

At Home

  • Exhaustion prevents these leaders from making good decisions and increases the likelihood of mistakes.
  • These leaders often feel that nothing is in their control.
  • Family tempers flare easily over small issues.

What’s the Solution to Shortsightedness?

When emergencies occur, extraordinary leaders take a moment to gather their thoughts, round up the appropriate resources and work through problems with an eye on the long-term strategy. They leverage the expertise around them by delegating important tasks while making sure their input is received. They also make every effort to get enough sleep and reduce their stress levels by exercising and living a healthy lifestyle.

Extraordinary leaders have a clear picture of what they want and they express it in a number of ways. Their vision is articulated clearly and passionately, without apology. Extraordinary leaders have a vision that excites and inspires those around them, bringing out the best in their team members and equipping them for success. Their shared goals and dreams for the future help everyone see the big picture in their daily work and lives.

Thinking Trap #7: Fear of Failure

What’s the Thinking Trap?

Leaders who are determined to succeed can fall into the trap of constantly playing it safe to eliminate the risk of failure. They may turn down new ideas or avoid taking action because they are afraid of making mistakes. They shy away from experimentation, staying in their comfort zone. They often regret past failures and view them as letdowns, serious personal flaws or catastrophes.

These types of leaders keep their cards close to their chest and don’t often share their emotions, thoughts or feelings with others. They prefer to give the impression that everything is okay and under control rather than sharing personal upheavals or a sense of failure. Asking themselves “What would people think if they knew the truth about me?” keeps these leaders disconnected from others. Getting past old failures and taking on new risks is extremely difficult for fear that past mistakes will occur once again.

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Greg was a steady performer, but it wasn’t always this way. In college, he failed his final certification exam three times and has felt terrible shame ever since. He cringed at the thought of others ever finding out – what would they think about him if they knew?

Greg was an accountant and ran a moderately successful firm. His clients appreciated his sincerity, but he was conscientious about keeping an arms-length relationship. He felt it was important to keep up the image of success without sharing too much.

He thought about dramatically expanding his sales and marketing but was uncomfortable about taking the risk. He didn’t want to incur the expense without being 100% sure that it would bring back a return on his investment. Failure is something that he did not want to experience again. He was at a standstill, living a ho-hum life. He knew that something had to change, but was terrified to take any kind of action.

What’s the Impact of the Fear of Failure?

At Work

  • They stay conservative, limiting their own growth potential and that of their team.
  • Leaders are unprepared for future opportunities and challenges.
  • Team members also become frightened to take action.

At Home

  • This type of leader keeps past failures a secret from family members for fear it will negatively impact their view of him/her.
  • They often feel isolated and have the need to carry any type of burden on their own.
  • Close friendships are few and far between.

What’s the Solution to the Fear of Failure?

Extraordinary leaders recognize that each failure brings them closer to success. Their defeats don’t discourage them. Instead, they find a way to leverage their failures and turn them into opportunities. Truly remarkable leaders have a high degree of emotional resilience: the ability to bounce back from adversity with speed and agility.

They don’t let their setbacks define them and they certainly don’t fear future failures. In fact, they invest quite a bit of time extracting important lessons from their failures and figuring out ways to turn them into advantages.

These types of leaders are not afraid to take risks. Before leaders take actions that may lead to undesirable outcomes, they say to themselves, “If I fail, here’s what I will do to recover.” Once they envision the recovery, the risk seems smaller and more manageable.

On a personal level, these leaders are humble and non-judgmental. They surround themselves with individuals who have lived a life filled with rich experiences – both successful and not so successful. Their intention is to learn from everything and use it to connect with others on every level.

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