‘Cognitive dissonance’ is a term coined by psychologist Leon Festinger back in 1957 in his book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. It refers to the discomfort that a person feels when there is misalignment between their behavior and their values or beliefs. It can also occur when a person holds two contradictory beliefs at the same time. In contrast, cognitive consonance exists when ideas logically flow from one another and are consistent.

For example, a person who considers himself orderly and cleans up after himself even when it’s not easy or convenient is in consonance with his beliefs. But if the same person leaves things around, his behavior is in dissonance with his self-identity. 

According to Festinger, dissonance between two contradictory ideas, or between an idea and a behavior, creates discomfort. The discomfort intensifies when a person holds many dissonant views, and/or those views are important to them.

To ease our discomfort, we may rationalize our behavior or way of thinking. Say a person is told by their doctor that their eating habits raise their risk of illness or disease. They may tell themselves that the warning is exaggerated or in some way not relevant to them. If someone reads that their favorite politician has done something immoral, they could conclude that the charges have been fabricated by his enemies.

Whether we rationalize in such ways or not, there’s no question that we’re not happy when there’s dissonance between our beliefs and our actions. The internal discomfort and tension caused by cognitive dissonance often contributes to stress or unhappiness. Furthermore, people who experience dissonance but have no way to resolve it may also feel powerless or guilty. Which is why it’s so important for leaders to work to minimize such feelings amongst team members and direct reports. 

Here are some common workplace factors that can cause cognitive dissonance:

  • Forced compliance – Feeling compelled to do things they disagree with.
  • Decision making – Having to make decisions from only “bad” choices.
  • Effort – Viewing difficult tasks positively, even if they do not morally agree with them. (We tend to view things that we invested much time and effort into more positively than simpler tasks.)

One way that leaders can minimize cognitive dissonance in the workplace is to lead from values. Values are the core components of a person’s deepest beliefs, the concepts they hold most dear and drive decision making, or at least should. When a leader takes the time to identify her deepest values, she is likelier to make satisfying choices and remain consistent in her actions and choices. Moreover, if she is effective in articulating her values, then others will understand her reasoning and be more inclined to support her process.

Of course, the ideal way to lead is to do so from the rear forward, rather than to drag others along from the front. The more that the “followers” feel a sense of ownership of and connection with the underlying values and related decision making, the more inclined they will be to support the effort and contribute towards its success. 

Creating a shared sense of values may not be as challenging as would first appear. For starters, gather your team together for conversation. Offer them a values list and see where the discussion goes. Focus on company values as opposed to personal ones and aim to narrow down the list to a core group that can help direct future decision making in a manner that is not personal but rather values driven. Then, send the list around for clarification and confirmation. Once confirmed, publicize the values for all to see. At a future meeting, present hypothetical scenarios so everyone can grapple with the situation in the context of the values they have selected. 

So, for example, the company has embraced a respectful work environment that prioritizes personal wellbeing and family over the pursuit of profits. Present a scenario in which these values are threatened, by such things as harsh, competitive marketplace conditions or demanding clients. Ask the group to identify the challenge against their values and how they would expect themselves and the leadership to respond. In this way, they not only crystalize their position but create a pathway forward when the inevitable conflicts arise. 

So often, leaders must choose between two “rights.” It is right to reward loyal workers who have invested so much into the organization but also right to promote the most competent and skilled staff. It is correct to consequence an employee who has compromised the company by her actions. It is also correct to demonstrate mercy and compassion, especially when it becomes clear that she was in a bad way personally. It is proper for a leader to explore new opportunities for growth. But is it not also proper for her to remain considerate of what such changes might do to everyone on staff? By identifying clarifying values, such scenarios become easier to approach. 

It is also necessary to establish consequences for team members who don’t follow the organization’s values. We all strive to be good and act in accordance with our values. But sometimes we fall short, and must be held accountable to prevent slippage.  

Creating a values system offers another benefit, that of self-selection. Ex-Proctor and Gamble CEO Bob McDonald once suggested to graduate students they only work for a company they believe in. This can be done by examining a company’s purpose, values, and people to see if they align with your own beliefs and ethics. Of course, people who do not share the same values can choose to stay away from your company or may be vetted out through interview conversation. McDonald also admonished future leaders to “choose the harder right, rather than the easier wrong.”

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, is an executive coach and president of Impactful Coaching and Consulting (ImpactfulCoaching.com). He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at nh@impactfulcoaching.com. 

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