Decisions Decisions! The Effect of Cognitive Dissonance – Bill Spindloe

Bill Spindloe our regular contributor blogs on the anguish and effects of poor decision making.

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Right or Left? Vanilla or Chocolate? Red or Blue? We make decisions that can take milliseconds or can be agonized over for weeks, or months, and in some cases years if I am to talk to about whether I am going to paint the spare bedroom according to the wife, but there I digress. The fact is that the decision making process in all of us is formed in many complex ways, fight or flight, live or die, biases, emotions, fears, memories – the list is almost endless. In business there is a feeling that it is the choice between the good and the bad, the right and the wrong that can mean success or failure. I would agree to some extent, but the biggest problem with decision making in business is not making the wrong decision, it is the fact that so many of our managers and leaders simply will not make any decisions !

Poorly conceived, badly thought out decisions are an aspect of why things can and do go wrong. There are however, way, way more decisions that do not get made on a daily basis that quite often, have a more detrimental effect -Death by a Thousand Cuts – these decisions tend not to be the perceived make or break choices, but collectively they can still be as devastating, if not more so. So why can’t we seem to make some decisions? The answers to this are also many and varied but here is a thought about why this state of mind might persist.

Here’s one thought – Cognitive Dissonance. Not a phrase that many might use on a daily basis, but it would seem it is an odd side effect of the interdependent workplaces we all encourage. Just to explain this theory in more everyday terms, it is essentially when we act in ways that conflict with our beliefs and then the subsequent tension felt is called Cognitive Dissonance. For example, when teenagers decide to smoke, even when they know it is not good for them, and then to eliminate or mitigate the dissonance, they start to shed some doubts about the claims or statistics about cancer.  Why do they start smoking in the first place? Well, peer pressure, not wanting to seem like they are not fitting in with the rest, and this is also true in the corporate world. There are a great many things that we personally don’t believe in, or agree with, but because no one else seems to be stepping out of line to express concern, then neither do we. It is the safer choice, and if we are ever questioned about our lack of decision making, we do exactly what the teenage smoker does, and start to distort the facts to suit the decision, or lack of decision making on our part.

It would appear that people from cultures where they encourage interdependency, ironically are more concerned about disrupting social harmony and being seen as separate, so through fear of being rejected they take less of an active part in the decision making process.

“Shame is, after all, the quintessential social emotion, whereas guilt is an intrapersonal phenomenon, something that’s between you and your conscience.  You could literally be the last person on earth and still feel guilt about something, but shame is a feeling that requires the presence—actual or imagined—of other people” – Dr Lawrence White ( Culture Conscious)

So what is the solution? Well it is clear that being interdependent is a key factor in the success of teams, but when it comes to leadership, it would appear that we also need to start to encourage our future leaders that they are not defined by the opinions of the group and that stepping out of line can be a good thing.  You won’t get your way every time, people won’t always agree with you, but you also won’t have to carry around some of the guilt attached to Cognitive Dissonance either.

Bil Spindloe is regional director, Petroskills Middle East.  bill.spindloe@petroskills.com