You don't always work as efficiently or productively as you could, and you know it. Chances are you can even identify which ways of doing things you could probably do better if you were to do them differently—but you don't want to. That's just the way you do it.
It's normal to have some habits or practices you prefer and others you don't, and some managers have found that giving employees control over the "how" as long as they accomplish the "what" is a powerful productivity strategy in its own right. But sometimes we fall into routines at work that not only do we know to be less than ideal, but we also find ways to convince ourselves they're worth sticking to anyway. That can be a problem.
In the 1950s, the psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term "cognitive dissonance" to describe the uneasiness we feel when we hold two conflicting ideas simultaneously. Festinger realized that this discomfort isn't just an inert feeling—it influences our behavior in surprising ways.
Cognitive dissonance is so unpleasant that it motivates us to make changes in order to avoid experiencing it. But since we don’t always recognize why we're uncomfortable (the source of our cognitive dissonance), we can often wind up making the wrong changes—or holding onto habits we should probably abandon.
I once worked with an organization that sent out sensitive documents. Because of the nature of the work, when mail was returned, it couldn’t just be thrown away and the recipient removed from the mailing list. We had to make every effort to contact the person.
The procedure to do this was created before email and social media were widespread. So those tools—even after they came on the scene—still played little part in our process for contacting recipients. Our staff found themselves using a process they knew was unwieldy and old-fashioned, and that created cognitive dissonance. They valued the efficiency of shooting off a quick email over mailing physical documents, and taking that analog approach anyway (in other words, behaving contrary to a belief) subconsciously caused distress.
For a long time, they weren’t able to change the process. So to avoid cognitive dissonance, employees came up with ways to make sense of what they were doing. By the time they were given the freedom to change course, they'd convinced themselves they had a legal obligation (which they didn't) to act in the way that they did. 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 it's consciously recognized, though, these inconsistencies can motivate change for the better.
You can never entirely avoid cognitive dissonance—it’s part of how we think. But you can reduce it. Here are a few steps to take to do that.
People are pretty good hypocrisy detectors. Any inconsistency between your company’s stated values and its behaviors will create dissonance for employees who are asked to follow procedures that conflict with the values they’re told to uphold. So if you’re going to say you value creativity, then let people be creative; if you say you value diversity, then be diverse; if you say you value quality over speed, then don’t rush people. This isn't rocket science, but the gap between values and action is the first thing to look for.
Same goes for your brand. Examine the relationship between your organization’s public image and the reality of your work. 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. Make sure image matches reality, and no one will waste mental energy straining to match the unmatchable.
The more effort people put into something, the more they'll 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 the supposed purpose of it will correspond, and that work will make them comfortably more committed to those values. A great deal of misplaced effort usually leads to a great deal of justifications for sticking with it.
Anytime someone asks why you do something, there’s a risk that you’ll give a knee-jerk response, looking for the most obvious way to make sense of what you do already—instead of really thinking about why you do it. The worst part is, you won’t even realize you may be inventing after-the-fact justifications for a less-than-ideal process.
So don’t give the first answer that comes into your head. Press pause, step away, check the facts, and then come back with the real explanation. If that explanation—the truthful one, backed by research—isn't so hot, 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 what's inconsistent. Circumstances change, and so do businesses. Sometimes inconsistencies will develop, and we can get defensive about them—explaining them away instead of fixing them. So be on the lookout for those inconsistencies, but keep in mind that they're normal and, in many cases, fixable.
It's a good goal to try and work as rationally as possible. But we don't always think that way, and recognizing that is the first step toward scrapping your worse habits and hanging onto your better ones.