Five Dangerous Beliefs

The American Psychologist, my profession’s premier journal, recently published a report on five dangerous beliefs. When these beliefs are prominent within ethnic or political groups, destructive conflict, terrorism, and even war are usually soon to follow. As I read the report, it was clear to me that these same beliefs, when present within business organizations, create pernicious conflict that erodes profits and sometimes kills companies.

Beliefs drive behavior. Beliefs guide how hard someone works, how other people are treated, and whether the leader’s directives are followed. People who believe hard work pays off work hard. Others do enough to get by. Those who believe people are generally trustworthy behave more cooperatively than those who believe people are “just out for themselves.” Workers who believe that their leaders are competent and looking out for everyone’s well being are likely to conform to the leaders’ instructions.

Beliefs take on immense power to steer behavior under two conditions. One condition is that the beliefs are widely held by one’s peers. If your co-workers trust each other, you are more likely to trust them. The second condition is that the belief is held so deeply that it becomes an assumption. Assumptions, often just out of reach of our awareness, are not questioned. In fact, when we are presented with evidence that would call our assumptions into question, we often find ways to ignore, deny, or dismiss the evidence. As you read about the five beliefs, imagine what may be happening in your company if they are widespread and reach the level of assumptions.

Superiority: When one group believes itself to be superior to another, a foundation for conflict is constructed. A belief in superiority is not just good self esteem. Good self esteem recognizes talent without putting someone else down. Groups who believe in their own superiority see themselves as meriting privileged status. To justify their sense of privilege, they see members of other groups as contemptible, lazy, unmotivated, and inferior.

What do you suppose such beliefs do to teamwork and cooperation? A belief of superiority discourages efforts to see things from another group’s point of view. In some companies, labor and management hold mirror views of each other - “we are smart and know the truth while those other guys are stupid.” Teamwork requires not that everyone be the same or think the same, but that people in different groups have respect for each other.

Injustice: Some groups have a belief that the world is out to get them. Whenever something bad happens, they perceive that it was done on purpose. They often misinterpret events as unfair that, in truth, are merely unfortunate. A layoff may be seen as an attack on labor rather than a result of lost market share. Management might interpret low production as passive aggressive behavior rather than poorly designed work processes. There is unlikely to be any meaningful discussion to clarify intentions. Expressions of regret for mistakes or misfortune by the “other side” are dismissed out of hand.

Vulnerability: Groups who believe themselves to be vulnerable believe that they can do little to protect themselves from danger. Groups who interpret themselves as chronically vulnerable feel chronically afraid and anxious. In an attempt to deal with this high level of anxiety, “vulnerable” groups often take actions that, paradoxically, bring about the very results that they fear. If labor or management sees the “other side” as a threat, they may take aggressive action, i.e., a strike or arbitrary firings. Retaliation is sure to follow. The story of the Middle East teaches us that retaliation can be never ending. Some companies know this from their own experience.

Distrust: Distrust exists when one group sees another as hostile towards their interests. When a group assumes hostile intent, it fails to distinguish between actions that are hostile and those that are not. All actions are seen as hostile. In a company marked by chronic conflict between management and labor, an unexpected bonus might elicit the reaction “I wonder what they want now. What have they got up their sleeve?” Likewise, an idea from the line staff that would simplify production might be interpreted by management as evidence of laziness.

Helplessness: “No matter what I do, I cannot get what I want.” When you believe nothing you can do will make a difference, you usually do nothing at all. Sometimes helplessness is accurate. Some management teams batter certain groups within their company into submission. The result? A dispirited group with no motivation. Sometimes a group’s belief in its helplessness is not accurate. However, group behavior is based on belief, not reality. Belief in helplessness is more incapacitating than any external circumstance. Helpless groups inadvertently invite aggression against themselves by other groups in the organization.

Action Steps: You may want to assess the presence of these beliefs within groups in your own company. If you find them present to a significant degree, you may have unearthed the real reasons why things don’t go as well as you know that they can.

There are several ways that you can do such an assessment. You could do it yourself. Actively listen to members of different groups. Listen to the extent to which they express beliefs of superiority, injustice, vulnerability, distrust and helplessness in their relationships with other groups in your company. A second possibility is to bring in an outsider who knows how to help people express their real beliefs. If you elect this method, it is essential that the person have potential credibility with all relevant groups. Finally, you could do a formal survey that taps into these dimensions.

Once you have accurate data that these five beliefs are present to a disturbing degree, you will need to do something about it. Just sitting on the information will be damaging. Next month, we will talk about the challenging task of changing powerful beliefs.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., which helps individuals and companies perform at their peak. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927 or by e-mail at

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

Back to Articles & Publications