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Cognitive Dissonance

2 October, 2015 - 14:32

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.” 1 What Palmer speaks to is a level of dissonance that often occurs often in human interactions, particularly with leaders.

Cognitive dissonance 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.” 2 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.