You have bought a pair of very expensive tickets for a classical music concert but the traffic is horrible and you are late. They don’t let you enter into the concert hall until the next break. Never mind, the first piece of the concert wasn’t that important.
You’ve bought a jumper online. It was a bargain. A big brand with a reduced price of 60% of the retail price. The jumper arrives. The quality is not great. You suspect the jumper is not even an original. You say to yourself: The colour is very nice though, it fits perfectly, it shows the brand, and, quite frankly, for what I have paid, it’s great.
You expected that promotion that you thought you deserved. It entailed having a team of people working for you. The promotion time comes but you are bypassed in favour of somebody else. You think: ‘Thank God, because it would have been a nightmare to have to manage people; I could do without that pain’.
You have just hired Peter to lead that division and he is now a full member of your management team. Peter came with the highest credentials, he interviewed very well, and represents just the right addition to your senior team. Three months in the job, Peter has managed to generate widespread antibodies. His management style is blunt and unpleasant; you get many expressions of concern, if not real complaints from others. The choice has been, quite frankly terrible. But you say that Peter is misunderstood, he brings lots of value and people need to be patient. He is the right man at the right time for the job.
In all four examples, your mind is protecting you so that you can bear the discomfort produced by the gap between your expectations and the reality, your decisions and the outcomes. It’s a helping hand to allow you to feel less of a fool, or not a fool at all. It was really bad to be late at that expensive concert, to get a terrible quality jumper in the post, to fail to be promoted and to hire Peter. But your mind comes to your protection with a different version of reality in which you are no longer a loser, but, actually, an incredibly clever winner.
Psychology has a name for this phenomenon: cognitive dissonance. Your mind has this ingenious mechanism to avoid it and produce instead perfect ‘assonance’. Lousy decisions are converted into smart ones, mediocre outcomes into ‘the best thing we could do under the circumstances’, bad mistakes into ‘the greatest opportunity to learn’.
Life in the organization is full of this stuff. You can’t avoid it. You can’t stop your mind behaving in that way. That’s why critical thinking is so important . Critical thinking is often in short supply in organizations where the rush to do, and to be seen doing, induces a tendency to bypass a great deal of logic. In haste, cognitive dissonance is an even bigger problem – it will be easier to justify many things that perhaps are not that justifiable. Once the decision is made, there will be plenty of reasons to justify it as a good one. In a hurry, or under stress, this happens in automatic pilot.
There are simple protective measures at hand. For example, bring more options, bring more diverse views, make ‘alternatives’ mandatory in decision making. But, above all, dare I say, ‘pursue the truth’. The Biblical ‘The truth will set you free’, adopted by many in the academic world, has a similar place in the life of the organization. Openness, honesty and candour, start with the old expression: ‘Call a spade a spade’.