Avoiding the Destructive Effect of Cognitive Dissonance in Your Business
Psychological health isn’t just the concern of psychiatrists. A good leader is aware of the psychological health of the business she runs and the way that affects behavior within the business. One of the biggest psychological threats to running an efficient, effective business is cognitive dissonance.
What is Cognitive Dissonance?
Identified in the 1950s by psychologist Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance is vital to understanding how people change their attitudes and behavior.
Festinger realized that people sometimes find themselves holding conflicting attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, and that these conflicts make us uncomfortable. This discomfort, called cognitive dissonance, motivates us to make changes to avoid it. But we don’t always recognize why we are uncomfortable, and as a result the desperate desire to overcome cognitive dissonance can lead to counter-productive changes.
Make sure image matches reality, and no one will waste mental energy straining to match the unmatchable.
Making Sense of the World
I once worked with an organization that sent out sensitive documents. Because of the nature of the work, when post was returned it couldn’t just be binned and the recipient removed from the mailing list. They had to make every effort to contact the person.
The procedure to do this was originally created before e-mail and social media were widespread. These therefore played little part in contacting recipients. Staff found themselves using a process they knew was unwieldy and old-fashioned, which created cognitive dissonance. They valued modernity and efficiency, behaving in another way subconsciously caused distress.
For a long time, they weren’t able to change the process. So, to avoid cognitive dissonance, they came up with ways to make sense of what they were doing. By the time they were given the freedom to make changes, they had convinced themselves that they had a legal obligation to act in the way that they did, because otherwise they were acting against their values. Dislodging this idea became a stumbling block to improvement for the business.
Cognitive dissonance can motivate people to change the way they work. But if they aren’t aware of what’s going on it can instead lead to irrational behavior and the invention of justifications for things that should be changed.
If consciously recognized, inconsistencies can motivate change. If not, they lead to cognitive dissonance and all the trouble it brings.
Avoiding Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance can never be entirely avoided – it’s part of how we think. That said, you and the people you lead will be more effective if you can reduce dissonance, avoiding the stress it creates and allowing you to think more rationally about your work.
How do you do this?
Walk the Walk
Inconsistency between your company’s values and its behavior will create a great deal of dissonance for employees, as they are forced to follow procedures that run against the values they’re told to uphold. So if you’re going to say you value creativity then let people being creative; if you say you value diversity then be diverse; if you say you value quality over speed then don’t rush people.
Match Image to Reality
The same goes for the relationship between your organization’s public image and the reality of your work. Some people are comfortable presenting one image of their work while acting completely differently behind the scenes, but for employees with integrity that means dissonance at every turn. Don’t pretend to the world that you’re a fun-loving company if your ethos is really about serious work, or that you value customer feedback if you’re already set on a specific course. Let image match reality and no-one will waste their mental energy straining to match the unmatchable.
Effort in the Right Area
The more effort people put into something, the more they will tend to believe in it. So make sure that your employees are focused, as far as possible, on core tasks and values that express the purpose of your business. This way, their work and their supposed purpose will match, and that work will make them comfortably more committed to those values.
Research, Don’t Explain Away
Any time someone asks why you do something as a business, there’s a risk that you’ll give a knee-jerk reaction based on cognitive dissonance, looking for the most obvious way to make sense of the world rather than checking reality. The worst part is, you won’t even realize that you’re doing it.
So don’t give the first answer that comes into your head. Go away, check the facts, and then come back with the real explanation. If that explanation proves a poor justification for your processes, then maybe it’s time to change.
Avoiding cognitive dissonance is all about creating consistency, but that doesn’t mean that you should go into denial about inconsistency. Circumstances change and so do businesses. Sometimes inconsistencies will develop, and if you become defensive about this then you’ll end up explaining them away instead of fixing them. Encourage yourself and those you lead to look out for inconsistencies, to accept their existence, and to look for ways to fix rather than explain them.
A Healthy Business Under a Healthy Leader
By being aware of cognitive dissonance you can make yourself, your business and your employees more healthy. You can also ensure that the business is run in a rational way, relying on facts rather than fear and knee-jerk reactions. You’ll be a step ahead of the competition, and able to do better on your own terms.
Psychology isn’t just for psychologists. After all, we all have minds.