Be Careful What You Ask For

According to a handy wiki definition, cognitive dissonance refers to “the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person’s belief clashes with new evidence perceived by that person. When confronted with facts that contradict personal beliefs, ideals, and values, people will find a way to resolve the contradiction in order to reduce their discomfort.”

Let’s marinate in this idea for a bit. Basically, you believe X. The world presents with you with evidence of not X. This makes you uncomfortable – both in an emotional, intellectual way as well as in a physical way. It can make you so uncomfortable that your experience of hearing not X is tangibly detrimental to your health and well-being. The stronger you believe X, the more likely you are going to associate not X with this negative feeling, this physical reaction to contradictory evidence, and reject the not X as dangerous. Not X carves a groove in your brain and body that says, X is okay and I’m comfortable with X while anything that is not X makes me physically ill. Obviously, this a positive feedback loop on your existing belief system. When we combine cognitive dissonance with confirmation bias, by the way, Katy-bar-the-door, it becomes almost impossible to even find not X evidence let alone take it on board and start relinquishing our X conviction.

Did I lose you? Maybe I shouldn’t use variables. Do you think I’m talking about American politics? Heh. Sure. American politics is a great place to explore cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias and the power of belief systems to protect themselves through biological responses to any threat to their existence. But that’s not what’s bugging me right now.

I like to tell folks, “People are not resistant to change… they just don’t like being told what to do.” This is true, but people also don’t like to believe something new or different. It’s not even a personal preference, “Don’t tell me new stuff”; It’s more or less hard-wired into the way we process new information. To get past the initial discomfort, we must provide people the time, space, and support to feel bad first and then get over it. For those paying attention, this is another way of describing the change curve: the time it takes to get past the cognitive dissonance unleashed by the introduction of a new, potentially contradictory piece of information.

I think people underrate the productivity harm caused by cognitive dissonance in a business context. Recently, I have seen this manifest most strongly in ‘do more with less’ demands of leadership. Now please let me clear that I understand that all leaders at all companies in all times and places and spaces ask their people to do more with less. Weirdly, it always feels new and innovative and disruptive in the moment, but I suspect Chief Cave Guy asked Lesser Cave Dwellers to cook more with less wood as soon as we invented the words to ask for it. However, there are degrees of what you can ask people to produce. You get past a certain level of pressure, and people start to express symptoms of stress, by-products of the extreme delta between what they know is possible and what you are insisting they accomplish.

Let’s say your people can build 20 widgets per day. If you set them an objective to build 25 widgets with one less person, they are going to bitch and moan and generally express their unhappiness with pointy-haired managers. They are also going to find a way to strive for the objective. In fact, depending on the maturity of your business, they might find improvements in the model that enable them to squeeze out 23 or 24. Missed the target but setting that stretch goal had the desired outcome of producing better results. However, if you set the target to 100, every single person on that team is going to look at you like you are out of your goddammed mind. “I know we can produce 20 (X), you say we must produce 100 (not X). It’s not even in the realm of possibility.” Cognitive dissonance. Instead of bitching, they are going to tell you to f* off. People will be uncomfortable, physically responding to the stress with negative emotions and behaviours. The team probably pops out with maybe 18 in response to this absurd target. Cognitive dissonance resulted in a reduction in productivity by introducing so much discomfort and misery that people disengaged with the objective, lost trust in their leaders, and abandoned any sense of shared purpose.

We need to learn how to stop asking our people to do things that are categorically unachievable. Set ambitious targets and stretch goals within the realm of reality, attainability, the possible. Do not set mutually contradictory objectives such as ‘improve several levels AND reduce your work force by 50%’ as you instantly fire off a cognitive dissonance feedback loop that will result in the achievement of neither goal and a lot of unhappy, sick, cranky employees. We need to be super careful what we ask for. We can ask for a lot, but – all those stupid motivational posters notwithstanding – we can’t afford to ask for the impossible.

 “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they been fooled.” ~ Mark Twain