6.2 Cognitive Dissonance

Parker Palmer wrote, “When leaders operate with a deep, unexamined insecurity about their own identity, they create institutional settings that deprive other people of their identity as a way of dealing with the unexamined fears in the leaders themselves.”Palmer (1998). What Palmer speaks to is a level of dissonance that often occurs often in human interactions, particularly with leaders.

Cognitive dissonanceA state of discomfort experienced when an individual’s beliefs, ideas, or attitudes are incompatible with each other. is a state of discomfort that humans experience when one of their beliefs, ideas, or attitudes is contradicted by evidence or when two of their beliefs, ideas, or their attitudes come into conflict with each other. Dissonance makes people feel uncomfortable and “is bothersome under any circumstance, but it is most painful to people when an important element of their self-concept is threatened—typically when they do something that is inconsistent with their view of themselves.”Tavris & Aronson (2007), p. 29. A famous case in cognitive dissonance comes from the work of Leon Festinger, who described the workings of cognitive dissonance that occurred in a group setting.

Festinger and his associates studied a group that believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood on a certain date. This belief led group members to gather in the same location and pray; by doing so, they believed they would be saved. In the end, there was no flood and no end of the world. So what happened to the members? For the group members who were really committed to the belief (basically, giving up their homes and jobs), when the flood did not happen, these individuals had a large dissonance between their beliefs and the evidence they saw. Because of this large gap between their beliefs and the evidence at hand, they were more likely to reinterpret the evidence to show that they were right all along. For example, they would say that the earth was not destroyed because they came together to pray. While these individuals justified their beliefs, the others recognized the foolishness of the experience and changed their beliefs or actions.

Using this example to guide our thinking about cultural intelligence, we can see that culturally intelligent leaders must be able to address the dissonance between their beliefs, ideas, or their attitudes and behaviors. When leaders fail to see the connection, they are not really walking the cultural intelligence they talk. Some leaders will justify their beliefs even when the evidence eventually contradicts their belief systems. And rarely do we see organizational leaders change their beliefs or actions to align with what they say they will do around diversity and culture.

Learning and Dissonance

Dissonance can also occur when new learning or ideas are presented that conflict with what is already known. For example, an employee is required to attend a diversity workshop. During the session, the employee hears ideas that contradict, or come in conflict with, her belief about the topic. This employee already has certain knowledge about cultural diversity that she brings to the workshop, and because she is especially committed to her own knowledge and belief system, it is more likely that the employee will resist the new learning.

You can tell when a person is struggling with dissonance when you hear statements like, “Why can’t people who come to this country be more like us,” or “Why do we have to take these classes,” or “I have to change my belief (or what I do) just to accommodate someone else?” More often than not, when the new learning is difficult, uncomfortable, or even humiliating, people are more likely to say that the learning or workshop was useless, pointless, or valueless. To admit one’s dissonance would symbolize that one has been “had” or “conned” into believing something different.

If all this sounds familiar to you, or resonates with what is going in your organization, you are not alone. Our behaviors are very much rooted in beliefs that are not completely explored within a working environment. Organizational leaders do not clearly articulate how to think about and practice cultural intelligence. The result is a failure to implement and practice cultural intelligence that corresponds with the belief systems. Organizational leaders—especially those specifically working on diversity initiatives—need to identify the points of dissonance that occur in their organization and among their staff. Leaders should pay attention to this dissonance and how it is being expressed.

Larger Gaps, Larger Dissonance

According to cognitive dissonance theory, the more important the issue and the larger the gap between the beliefs, the greater the dissonance among people. This is critical for leaders to understand because culture is a very important issue within an organization. There are inherently large gaps in beliefs on a personal, team, and organizational level related to this culture. Individual beliefs about power and privilege—as they relate to gender inequity, race inequity, generational differences, ability and disability, sexual orientation, religion, and so on—need to be explored in organizations and among leaders. If dissonance is not discussed, leaders will continue to employ workers who (a) feel uncomfortable talking about culture and diversity, (b) continue to behave in inappropriate ways, (c) are accepting of culture on the outside but do not align diversity with their beliefs, and (d) feel that all they need are the “right tools” or the “right answers” to be culturally competent.

Without careful attention to exploring the stories of dissonance, leaders allow their organizations to bury their inclusion blind spots. Blind spotsThings that an individual or group cannot see because they are hidden or because the individual or group chooses not to see them. in cognitive dissonance describe the things you cannot see because they are hidden or because you choose not to see them. We are unaware of our blind spots because our focus is directed toward other things or we are distracted from what needs to be done. Blind spots can lead to underestimating or overestimating our cultural abilities and to truly understanding what needs to be done regarding culture and diversity. Regardless of the talent that is recruited, the accomplishments or progress that is made, or even how much money is poured into diversity initiatives, these blind spots can cause leaders to miss opportunities that bring about positive, transformative change and innovation.

Given this information, what can leaders do about the cultural dissonance within their organizations? First, leaders must have the courage to be open to the possibilities that their beliefs, or the organization’s beliefs, are not aligned with their actions and behaviors. It takes courageous leadership to not maintain the status quo and to explore the stories that give root to organizational and individual beliefs. Second, leaders can, and should, explore the dissonance by asking themselves the following questions:

  • What are my organization’s beliefs about culture?
  • What dissonance is present in our beliefs and our behaviors?
  • What gaps (in recruitment, within policy, and in intrapersonal interactions) are created because of the dissonance?
  • How is this dissonance stopping us from truly understanding culture?

In cultural intelligence work, it is critical that you recognize your self-concept to understand your blind spots. As a leader, it is your responsibility to help others recognize their self-concept and the role it plays in intercultural interactions. It is essential for you to understand that people will often choose to stick to their beliefs (even if it no longer serves them) to alleviate the emotional stress that reorganizing a self-concept requires. They would rather fend off the perceived threat than create learning opportunities out of these experiences.

Finally, it is important for leaders to work with employees to explore employee dissonance. Learning to work with, and understand, cultures is not the sole responsibility of leaders; it is the responsibility of everyone within an organization. Because leaders are in the positional power to promote and support the work, it is the responsibility of the leaders to help their employees uncover their blind spots. With clear sight of these blinds spots, organizations can turn them into an advantage. By doing so, organizations can find significantly greater possibilities that expand and deepen intercultural work than previously imagined.

Adapting and Modifying Behaviors

When we learn something new, we change our perspectives of our world, the way we interact with others, and our behaviors. We also learn when our behaviors are inappropriate and, hopefully, learn not to repeat them. We do this by adjusting our behaviors so that the situation does not occur again. We act differently based on previous consequences. If our behaviors resulted in a positive impact, we would continue the behavior. Take, for example, the following story about New Zealand’s soccer team, “All Whites.

After landing from a long flight from Austria, New Zealand’s soccer team, All Whites, heads to the South African stadium for their first day of training. They are met by a “smelly fog” on the field, making it difficult for players and coaches to breathe and see. One player comments on the smell and smog saying, “You could tell [it was smoky] as we came in on the bus. You could taste it, breathe it on the bus. It’s something that’s a bit different for us and something else to adapt to on tour.” The management team debates canceling the training and in the end decides to have players stretch their legs and get some exercise. Local South Africans on staff are confused at the entire ruckus and can’t understand why a team would stop playing because of a “little smog.” The players and team management can’t understand how anyone could play under such conditions.Lammers (June 8, 2010). The Dominion Post. Bizarre first training hit out for All Whites. Retrieved from http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/sport/football/3785307/Bizarre-first-training-hit-out-for-All-Whites

Learning a new pattern of behavior requires modifying small behaviors that add up to a complex behavior. Learning new patterns can be difficult but the motivation to modify and change can be transformational. Kevin Cashman said that positive change means letting go of our old behaviors and allowing change to be our teacher.Cashman (1999), pp. 87–88. As leaders, we must recognize our own capacity to change—that we have what it takes to make a change. To make a change, you need to believe you are capable of performing the behavioral change and that there is an incentive to change. Similarly, Margaret Wheatley said this about the human capacity to change and transform,

Viability and resiliency of a self-organizing system comes from its great capacity to adapt as needed, to create structures that fit the moment. Neither form nor function alone dictates how the system is organized…The system may maintain itself in its present form or evolve into a new order, depending on what is required. It is not locked into any one structure; it is capable of organizing into whatever form it determines best suits the present situation.Wheatley (2006), p. 82.

When making changes to your behaviors, there are three questions to ask to help initiate the change. Bridges (2004).

What is changing? To understand change, you must be clear about what you want to change in your cultural interactions. Then, make it your intention to change and carry out the change. Finally, your change must be linked to your motivation for changing. You will need to ask, why is it important that I make this change? How will this change my future interactions with this individual or cultural group?

What will actually be different because of the change? Because transformative change in cultural interactions can be hard, the ability to visualize the end result or outcome of the change can help move the situation forward. Visualization requires an articulation for what the desired result and outcomes look like. Setting clear expectations for getting to the desire result can help motivate you to making the change.

Who’s going to lose what? In any cultural shift you will need to ask yourself, What beliefs and values might I have to let go? Why is it hard to abandon your beliefs and values? How well have these values and beliefs served you? What are the barriers they create for your future? Consider the following case study of two individuals’ behaviors in relation to one other:

Jose is from Costa Rica and Mary is from Great Britain. They work together in an international company located in the United States. Mary notices that whenever Jose talks, he always inches closer to her personal space. She’s extremely uncomfortable when this happens and always takes steps back to give more physical space to the conversation. When she does this, Jose comes closer. One time, Mary was backed up to a work place counter and Jose didn’t even notice!

Imagine that Mary and Jose work for you, and Mary has approached you with her concerns. To help Mary find a solution to this situation, use the following table to help you to think through some important questions; then, look at the second column as one possible perspective or thought about the question. Finally, fill in your perspective and thoughts.

Self-concept does not necessarily mean that you have the knowledge and skills to be where you need to be. Because change and transitions are emotionally and psychologically taxing, making a connection between the behavior change and the outcomes can help to ease the transition. In some cases, if an individual is not responding to the change, rewards and reinforcers are used to increase a behavioral response. Even adding a compliment can increase a person’s behavior toward However, if a person does not know what fuels his or her self-concept, then the challenge in making a transition will be more difficult.

Table 6.1 Changing Cultural Behaviors

Questions One Perspective/Thoughts Your Perspective/Thoughts
How do Mary and Jose view personal space? How does this impact their behaviors? Mary feels a great need for personal space. As a woman, perhaps she feels a greater need for this space. Jose does not see a problem with the personal space. Maybe getting closer to her is one way of relating to her.
What are the adaptive behaviors needed in this situation? Mary and Jose need to understand that everyone has different ideas of what personal space means. It may be helpful for Mary and Jose to talk about personal space issues, especially what it looks like for both of them. Perhaps Mary is the only person who feels uncomfortable and the only one to have brought this up. Maybe others do not feel the same way.
What, if anything, will Mary and Jose lose if they change their behaviors? Through conversation, Jose and Mary will discover that their idea of personal space is related to their cultural upbringing. They might be resistant to the change in the beginning, because they see it as “their individual cultures or their national cultures.”
What will be gained from changing the behaviors of Mary and Jose? Mary and Jose will have a greater understanding for working together. Mary can focus on what Jose says instead of focusing on his body language toward her, and Jose can learn to control his own body language and to read that of others.