Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Immediate action is preferred in order to change behavior and thoughts sooner rather than later.

Patrick Heller
4 min readFeb 1


Au contraire to the psychodynamic approach, behavioral and cognitive therapies focus on the observable symptoms a client displays, rather than on the supposedly underlying issues that cause certain symptoms.

Let’s say when you get gloomy, you start to eat too much. A psychodynamic therapist would try and find out why you start eating too much when you get gloomy. This therapist would try to find the root cause of your problem and make you stop reaching for food by making you fully aware of your underlying issues. If you know and understand your unconscious desire to raid the fridge, then you can consciously stop yourself in your tracks.

A cognitive behavioral therapist would not spend time and effort on finding the deeper reasons why, they would simply try and stop you in your tracks before raiding the fridge. They would try to create a new and better environment for you in order for you to be able to adopt healthier habits instead.

One common feature of both behavioral and cognitive therapies is the use of metrics — measuring and recording the data by writing it down is an integral part of the process. The data will then show if the therapy is working or not.

Behavior Therapy

If we look strictly at behavior therapy, then this form of therapy is closely related to classical conditioning. More about conditioning in a future article, but for now, it suffices to say that in a conditioning process, an individual is being taught to behave in a certain way by providing a stimulus in that direction — in simpler words, given a reward for desired behavior (and perhaps punishment for undesired behavior).

Contingency management

Therapy based on changing the relationship between behavior and reward is called contingency management. In case of the unhealthy eating habit, which provides a temporary feeling of satisfaction, a therapist might work with the client to pick up physical exercise instead. If the client feels the need to raid the fridge, they should do ten push-ups first. Just by doing that, certain hormones are released and a satisfactory feeling will be triggered, thus lowering the felt need to raid the fridge. By doing exercises, the person will also feel better about themselves, and eventually, will also see that they’re doing better — in the mirror. The altered contingency between behavior and reward results in a lasting behavioral change.

How could we use behavioral therapy techniques at work? For instance, if someone has a habit of becoming angry at the office, a behavior therapist will wonder, what’s in it for this person to behave this way? What reward does this individual receive that stimulates them to continue this unhealthy behavior? Perhaps the scared looks on the faces of their colleagues make them feel powerful, or perhaps the anger prevents others from asking difficult questions. As a coach, you will then look for alternative rewards for healthier behavior. You could ask the other team members to express praise to their teammate if they behave friendly or smile. Thus, the person will experience this new reward when displaying the desired behavior. The satisfactory feeling (the praise) will only enforce this behavior more.

Exposure treatment

Behavior therapy has a strong track record when it comes to treating phobias, like fearing spiders. What therapists do is expose a client to a mild and more distant specimen of something they fear, for instance, spiders. They might first show a drawing of a spider, and see if the individual can hold it together. Then — if successful — the therapist might show a picture of a spider, then a video of a moving spider, and so on, until the client can stomach holding a live tarantula on their hand. Despite its relative success, only about 10% of therapists describe themselves as behavioral therapist.

On the work floor, you could apply this approach with a team that feels hesitant to adopt Scrum. You can expose them to small changes first, like introducing a daily fifteen-minute scrum. Once they get used to that — which process is called habituation — initiate a retrospective once every two weeks, and thus, slowly take away their fear of Agile methods by gradually exposing them to the real thing.

Cognitive Therapy

Right next to behavioral therapy, there is cognitive therapy. Where behavior therapy immediately starts with adapting one’s behavior, cognitive therapy first tries to make you think differently. Think of a behavior therapist as a trainer and of a cognitive therapist as a teacher.

The basic idea behind cognitive therapy is that the rational thoughts of the client can overcome the irrational beliefs of that same client. Therapists will “force” clients to think from different angles by asking many questions or by stating observations that contradict the beliefs of the client.

If you are interested in stories like these and more, you can buy Essential Psychology for Modern Organizations from Amazon and other bookstores:

Book cover.