Magical Thinking

Magical Thinking

People are quite talented at creating wonderful stories about their lives. These are like a gentle fog, creating an illusion of the wonderful future that awaits us. It is a whole world of magical thinking, where imagined reality (and the future) is better than it really is.

I found out about magical thinking recently from an article in the HBR (Harvard Business Review) and I have observed this frequently in my practical work as a coach with clients.

Usually at the beginning of the process, we undertake a "reality check” together with the client, where the conclusion sometimes is that the person is living in fantasy and in myths. This not only gets in their way, but also in the way of others - their subordinates and colleagues, as unrealizable promises are made to them, with missed timelines, while other people do not get what could be expected from productive collaboration.


There are several typical fantasies or myths which people create, believe, and tell themselves and other people.

Myth 1 

One of them is: “My workload is just short-term and will be better very soon! There will be less work and I will then be able to cope with it all.” But the reality is different – it will not be easier, there will not be a smaller workload. It may even be larger and more challenging. The consequences of ignoring this impact significantly on the quality of work and life.

To get an insight, I will share a few examples.

Agnese works in a position with a high level of responsibility at a manufacturing company. Since she took on this position, Agnese’s psychological state has deteriorated, and she has been suffering from some depression. Her back has also begun hurting, and she has found it difficult to remain seated throughout the workday. She has had to obtain medical assistance due to the back pain, although she doesn't associate her back pain with the situation at work.

Imants is a senior level manager. Since he has taken on this work, he has gained 20 kilograms in weight. He can no longer remember the last time he went for a walk in the forest (this is his favourite hobby), and when he spent time with his three children, as he is working all the time. He also spends time on the weekend on work matters, due to his heartfelt concern for the welfare of his family. 

There is something common in the stories of Imants and Agnese. Their daily timetable is something like this: they begin working as soon as they wake up in the morning. Their working day is 12 to 14 hours long, often without lunch or any breaks. It is full of meetings and appointments and when these are over, they begin the analytical work, respond to emails and similar.

They live with the myth that tomorrow everything will change. Today, we will just be a bit patient and tomorrow life will be different – beautiful and easy. Meanwhile their valuable time disappears like sand between one’s fingers, and they have not realized is really important in their lives, their true values.

Myth 2 

The myth that tomorrow will be better, with less work, often goes hand in hand with the assumption that other people expect perfect (in your understanding) execution from you.  Here is an example from my practice.

Monika works much longer than her defined working hours and with full commitment. She enthusiastically takes on and actively creates additional work for herself. She sees huge problems in the organization’s operations, raises the alarm in a flash and tells everybody about these, especially management, because she believes that management will appreciate this and promote her to a higher position. Monika even disturbs her direct supervisor in the middle of the night to explain what is not right, what is bad and not happening as it should.

Monika believes that she is showing that she is a good employee who cares about her organization in this way. But in actual fact, she has achieved something completely different - her manager feels as if he is being questioned and not accepted and finds it hard to collaborate with Monika. Her manager has even begun to avoid contact with her, as she only talks about things that are wrong. As a result, rather than improving her relationship with her direct supervisor, Monika has destroyed it.

In working together with Monika, we were able to reveal the reality of this fantasy that she had created. She was surprised, as she had not previously noticed that she lives in these imagined stories. She believed the arguments that she herself had created.

Magical thinking prevents people from recognizing that they must change something in their approach and everyday methods. They may have to give up some things and activities and rethink the things that they take on and get involved in. They may, possibly have to improve their skills.

Myth 3

Another of the frequently encountered myths is: "My next project will definitely be easier and will not demand as much time and effort". Living with this myth, people plan unrealistic time for their projects and work - this means unfulfilled promises, unproductive activities and poor results in the long term as well. These people are usually ready to take part in every meeting, even unimportant ones. They do not keep an eye on how much they sleep they get, what or how they eat, or their physical health. They also think that nothing happens unless they are involved.

Myth 4

And here is the next myth - “The others won't get by without me! That is why I have to get involved in everything and I must know all the details.”

For an insight - an example from my practice.

Ilona is a senior level manager who considers that everything has to be perfect. In her opinion, there will only be a good result if she is involved in absolutely everything, and everything will be as she wishes, and as she has imagined. She checks everything right down to the last detail.

In reality, Ilona uses up a lot of time by going into depth unnecessarily and controlling everything. Her subordinates are unsatisfied and frustrated because they feel that Ilona does not trust them. They consider that Ilona does not support them and distrusts them, and have, therefore, lost motivation and initiative. Ilona’s management is also dissatisfied with this situation. At the same time, Ilona continues living with the conviction that everything at the company will stop without her and participates in meetings during her holidays as well.

Myth 5.

"People will follow my instructions and will do everything that I expect of them" – another myth. If I have decided how things should be done, everybody should observe this and act accordingly. But other people may have a completely different perception of the work or a matter, and their motivation and priorities may be correspondingly different. There may possibly also be external factors which may demand concentration on something completely different. However, people who live these myths do not see this reality. They are convinced that the result can only be achieved in one imagined way. Magical thinking makes them believe this. 

Why does this happen?

Reason 1

Each person has their own justification for such fantasies, depending on their personality and previous experience. One of them is a fear of not being appreciated or accepted; the fear of not being able to prove oneself, that others will not appreciate or accept them. The source of this fear is the inability to accept that you are not ideal and never will be! 

A feeling of relief ensues when a person begins to accept that they can be weak, incapable, ineffective, and can err in particular situations, and that this is only normal. There is no longer a need to prove that one is perfect, because it can be clearly seen that this is not possible.

Reason 2

Another reason is the desire to be better than the best (to overachieve).  The achievement is not enough. There is a continual need to overachieve. Doing something at 100% is not enough, 120% at least is required...

Such a person has the desire to be the strongest, to be like a champion that no one can keep up with. Often this can be seen in people with a sporting history, the kind who have been competing for medals. Unfortunately, in reality, this brings trembling hands, skin problems, stress and burnout with it. The body is unable to be a champion all the time. It silently demands the help it needs. It needs rest, sleep, to switch over and do other things or to simply do nothing. Champions usually do not listen to their bodies, as they have often lost connection with it, but this connection is very important if we wish to live a full high-quality life.

What can be done with all this?

Dreaming is nothing strange - we all want to live in good conditions and to believe in ideals, to be valued and recognized. This makes us think up unachievable goals and aims. But it is important to maintain an objective and realistic view. The following approaches can help here – an objective view and coaching.

An objective view

Every one of us has someone we can ask for an objective view. Every manager has a more senior manager. Even if you are the CEO or the director of a business, you certainly have somebody, even a previous colleague with whom you can have a discussion. Often though, someone else’s opinion is like a cold shower, but it is very healthy as it helps us get back on track and come to our senses. That is why it is important that when you have doubts or a quandary, go and ask others.


Using the mirroring method in coaching sessions, I give the client the opportunity to listen to their own stories and myths. Often, they are very surprised about what they hear. Then we start to check whether the myths correspond to reality. We start to search for facts on something that proves, for example, that the next project will be easier. Usually neither proof nor facts can be found...

It makes me happy when people, on encountering reality, are able to look at it objectively. The mind is able to quickly see things from a different perspective, soaking up the information received quickly. But it is important that there is someone, who bravely confronts a person's myths and fantasies. Someone who points out that these fantasies are like stories from a book of fairy tales. It seems to me that without the assistance of someone else, this is difficult to realize. Usually this only happens when a person has really reached a low point in their lives, when their health has deteriorated, or a broken relationship forces them to think and look upon things differently.

Another important factor in working with managers - the higher the position, the less feedback and encouragement is received (both praise, as well as criticism). There is very little chance that someone will tap you on the shoulder and tell you that everything is OK with you, and it does not matter that you did not reach what was planned this time. A professional coach helps in filling the gap with this very important need – for objective criticism, as well as sincere praise and encouragement.

Going through the coaching transformation process, my clients can do a reality check, understanding why fantasies and myths have developed, and to start working with them, gradually restarting their everyday lives. As a result, they finish their working day at 6pm, rather than 10pm or 11pm as they did previously. They switch off their computer with a clear conscience, so that they can focus on their private life – to ride a bike, play board games with their children and to spend time with their friends and family. And, having found more time for themselves, physical activities and other joyful pursuits, they experience changes in their physical condition and begin to feel and look better and finally, to be happier with their lives.

Olga Dzene - leadership development expert, consultant, presenter and coach