How Learning your ABCs at Work Can Decrease Stress [ac-sc id="4845"]

How Learning your ABCs at Work Can Decrease Stress

How-Learning-your-ABCs-at-WOne of my all-time favorite bumper stickers asserts, “Don’t believe everything you think.” The first time I saw it, fifteen years ago, it took me a second to even make sense of it. Since that time, I have increasingly used that quote to remind myself that just because I have had a thought, it doesn’t necessarily make it true. This seems to apply especially when I find myself angry.

We play a role in our own stress and angst, sometimes causing it where none really needs to exist. We bring our histories, good and bad, to our daily interactions and this affects our perceptions. Albert Ellis (1962), the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), identified that much of the stress experienced in life comes not from the stressful events in our lives, but from our interpretation of the event. This makes sense – if the activating event were causal, then everyone’s responses would be the same.
Enter the ABC Model Exercise, which is described in greater detail in ”The Resilience Factor” by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté. This exercise can be trained within an organization to increase skills to unearth underlying beliefs that affect our interpretations. If we can become aware of and begin to control our internalized communication, we can significantly alter how we are impacted by stressful events.

The ABC Model can be taught and utilized in our organizations. By modeling new behavior or, even better, training our teams to stop and consider their underlying beliefs (also known as “the stories we tell ourselves”), we can increase resilience and reduce the related fallout.

The ABC Model

Below is an example of the ABC Model exercise, which can increase our skill to detect thoughts in the midst of adversity and can help us understand its emotional impact. ABC stands for the following:

A:   Adversity or activating event

B:   Beliefs – the thoughts that run through our minds (consciously or unconsciously) when we face an adversity or an activating event

C:   Consequence – the result of the belief, which can be behavioral or emotional, or both
A-to-C Connections

Sometimes, when faced with adversity, we jump right from the adversity to the consequence, called an A-to-C Connection.  Here is an example, moving from A to C:

We are having a weekly staff meeting and an employee arrives ten minutes late (adversity), right in the midst of sharing an important development. I become angry and make a sarcastic remark to the employee in front of the entire team (consequence).


Dissecting the Steps

A: An employee is ten minutes late to a staff meeting

C: “I am mad” and the whole team knows it because of my sarcastic comment.

In this example, I have decided that anger is a result of the tardiness. That is an A->C connection. But, if we dig deeper, we will see the underlying belief:

B: “This employee is disrespecting me.” We can see what really had transpired was A->B->C.

Consider the above example again, but now consider the intervening the belief:

We are having our weekly stuff meeting and an employee arrives ten minutes late (adversity). I think, “This employee is disrespecting me” (belief). I become angry and make a sarcastic remark to the employee in front of the entire team (consequence).

Once we understand this underlying belief, we can potentially use this information to debunk the belief. This can be done with FAT Thinking.

FAT Thinking

FAT thinking is (F)lexible, (A)ccurate and (T)horough thinking. In moments of challenge, we can consider other options (be more flexible in our thinking), challenge the veracity of our own thoughts (be more accurate in our thinking) and consider additional information (be more thorough in our thinking). In the example above, we could ask ourselves the following:

In this case, I might ask, “Does the employee really disrespect me?”

  1. Flexible: Is there another way to look at this situation? Perhaps his last meeting ran late. Maybe an important call from a client came up.
  2. Accurate: Am I sure this is true? Given other possibilities, perhaps I should ask him what happened after our meeting before jumping to conclusions.
  3. Thorough: Is there more information I can consider? Upon further contemplation, I might recall that we have visiting clients or recall that the employee’s wife recently had a baby.


ABCs at Work

I am sure you get the idea. At work, you can model these new behaviors. If you’re a formal leader, or you just want to use your personal influence, you can encourage others to model such behaviors, and reinforce it in others. For example, instead of grumbling, “The marketing department is ignoring our request,” we can stop and consider out loud. “Marketing is late. I wonder if they are overloaded right now. I am going to check in and see why our materials have not been delivered.” A good time to stop and practice this is whenever we feel ourselves becoming aggravated; this might be such an opportunity.A final note: Small changes can have a big impact. According to Sigal Barsade, professor at the Wharton School of Business, we can “catch moods.” It only takes one of five employees to affect or “infect” the group (Barsade, 2001). We have all witnessed this effect—for better or worse. When the boss is angry and chastises that tardy employee, it can affect the mood of the entire room. So, don’t be shy. Model your ABCs. As another popular bumper sticker says, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”


Barsade, S. G. (2000). The ripple effect: Emotional contagion in groups.
Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. New York, NY: Lyle Stuart.
Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. (2002). The resilience factor: 7 essential skills for overcoming life’s inevitable obstacles. New York, NY: Broadway Books