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The Dangers of Cognitive Dissonance on Workplace Decision-Making and Performance

dangers of cognitive dissonance

People often put their curiosity about problems and people on hold to avoid cognitive dissonance. Inconsistencies between our beliefs, attitudes, or actions can be uncomfortable and unsettling. Our natural tendency is to avoid situations that could cause cognitive dissonance, leading to self-justification, denial, and spreading untruths.

Considering other perspectives requires us to change our views, which can be difficult potentially. And in the face of contrary evidence, people tend to cling to their beliefs even more tightly.

In the workplace, avoidance of cognitive dissonance can severely affect decision-making and performance.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling you get when your beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors conflict. Because cognitive dissonance can feel physically unnerving, humans avoid it as a natural self-preservation mechanism.

There’s even evidence that cognitive dissonance can cause physical discomfort. It has been found that individuals who experienced cognitive dissonance reported increased levels of physical pain and discomfort.

In one study, participants had to write essays expressing pro- or anti-death penalty views. Their next task was to evaluate evidence that contradicted their beliefs. When participants evaluated the evidence that conflicted with their held views, they experienced cognitive dissonance, which is measured by self-reports and facial expressions of discomfort.

Similar results have found intense social or emotional feelings being felt in the individual experiencing cognitive dissonance.

Not everyone will experience physical, social, or emotional discomfort due to cognitive dissonance, and the degree and intensity at which they experience these feelings may differ.

Cognitive Dissonance at Work

Individuals suffering from cognitive dissonance can struggle to perform well at work and be satisfied. People who suffer from cognitive dissonance have trouble resolving conflicting ideas and behaviors, which leads to discomfort and stress. This can negatively impact decision-making, as individuals may have difficulty determining the most appropriate course of action due to conflicting thoughts and behaviors.

Honest and integrity-driven team members might experience cognitive dissonance if asked to lie on behalf of their employer—the individual’s belief in honesty conflicts with their lying actions, leading to discomfort and anxiety.

Individuals may also struggle to focus or complete tasks due to the discomfort and stress caused by conflicting thoughts and behaviors. This can harm the overall performance of the organization.

Cognitive dissonance can lead to a tendency to self-justify or rationalize decisions, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. This can result in poor decision-making, as individuals may prioritize their beliefs or actions over logical or evidence-based decision-making.

On the other end of the spectrum, cognitive dissonance can also lead to avoidance of decision-making altogether. Team members may avoid situations or conversations that bring up conflicting thoughts or behaviors. This can negatively affect the organization, as decisions may not be made on time or may not be the best course of action.

Additionally, cognitive dissonance can lead to job dissatisfaction, as individuals may struggle to find meaning or fulfillment in their work if their beliefs and actions conflict. This can result in increased turnover and reduced job satisfaction among employees.

Organizations need to address periods of cognitive dissonance to avoid these adverse outcomes. By acknowledging and addressing conflicting thoughts and behaviors, organizations can improve decision-making, productivity, and job satisfaction among employees.

Signs You May be Experiencing Cognitive Dissonance

There are many ways we behave to avoid cognitive dissonance. They range from small, seemingly innocuous things to more significant actions that cause real harm to team members. Recognizing that this is a normal part of the human experience helps us be aware of it.

Several behaviors and actions characterize cognitive dissonance. These can include:

  • Avoidance: Some people avoid the situation or conversation altogether instead of engaging with the opposing viewpoint.
  • Defensiveness: When confronted with an opposing view, others may get defensive or hostile as they feel threatened.
  • Self-justification: Some people will try to justify their beliefs or actions even when the evidence is against them.
  • Denial: It’s not uncommon for some people to deny or discredit opposing views.
  • Discomfort: Many individuals may experience pain or a sense of unease when presented with an opposing view, as their beliefs and actions conflict.

If left unchecked, cognitive dissonance can hurt your decision-making and performance. Individuals may struggle to reconcile conflicting thoughts and behaviors, leading to poor decisions. Because of the discomfort and stress caused by cognitive dissonance, individuals may even have trouble focusing or completing tasks.

How to address cognitive dissonance in the workplace

Feeling uncomfortable or panicked when we get feedback or have challenging conversations is natural. Still, it’s equally important to recognize our role in maintaining cognitive dissonance.

You can take several steps to acknowledge and deal with cognitive dissonance at work:

  • Seek new or additional information: It’s sometimes helpful to get more info to clear up conflicting thoughts and behaviors. Ask yourself, “What do I know to be true? What might I be assuming?”
  • Engage in open and honest communication: It’s all about communication when it comes to cognitive dissonance. Individuals can gain perspective and clarity on their beliefs and behaviors by discussing conflicting thoughts and behaviors with a trusted colleague or leader.
  • Seek outside perspective: It can be helpful to get an outsider’s perspective, such as a friend or mentor, when dealing with cognitive dissonance. A fresh perspective can help people see things differently.
  • Practice self-awareness and mindfulness: Self-awareness and mindfulness can be valuable tools in addressing cognitive dissonance. Attention to our thoughts and behaviors can help us understand our values and beliefs and align our actions with them.

When we’re transparent, authentic and empathetic with others, we’ll build stronger relationships and work toward resolving cognitive dissonance.

I want to reassure you that you aren’t flawed or broken because you may experience cognitive dissonance from time to time. They’re a natural part of life and can lead to growth and improvement.

By approaching situations with empathy and a willingness to listen to others, we can work towards resolving cognitive dissonance and improving our well-being and relationships.

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Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

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