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Sunday, 11 August 2019

Just Made a Dodgy Decision? Beware Cognitive Dissonance!

Life in business is largely a matter of how we cope with decision making situations, good, bad, difficult, simple no-thought and a very wide range of others. 

Whatever the rationale the process is essentially the same even though we don’t notice any variance mostly because so many of the decisions we make are inconsequential. 

Astonishingly research shows that, on average we make around 35,000 decisions a day so who says you are indecisive?   Of course a vast proportion of those decisions are made without much or indeed any deep consideration. You have stopped having sugar in coffee for long enough for it to become normal. 

What matters, of course, is the perceived importance (and sometimes the urgency) level of the need for a considered decision

Recently there seems to have been a spate of U-turns, changes of mind, “alternative facts” and even some downright falsehoods from a number of politicians all over the world.

Perhaps this isn’t unusual but it does bring to mind a problem of communication that can be very damaging in a business.

It is that situation where someone makes a decision or a statement, finds that it is incorrect or misleading but then decides to defend it to the death.

Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance that is the mental stress (discomfort) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; when performing an action that contradicts one of those beliefs, ideas, or values; or when confronted with new information that contradicts one of those beliefs, ideas or values.

Got it?  That is the broad picture but it needs a little more depth.  It indicates a level of uncertainty in making a decision and this is compounded when subsequent to making a decision more evidence comes to light that changes the picture.

Normally one would expect to consider the evidence and then come to a conclusion; either change the original decision or maintain and justify it.

Changing the decision can be a very tough call.  It can bring on the fear of being regarded as indecisive, or vacillating, or worst of all, if you happen to be a politician, of committing the original sin of making a U-turn.

A leader needs to have and to exhibit humility and demonstrating that one can adjust one’s thinking and change one’s mind demands a good measure of it.

To accept that one has made an incorrect judgement and to change it and visibly needs strength of character and a lack of fear of the possible consequences.

It is all about how we care about what other people apparently may think about us.  If that is a dominant feature in your psyche then the likelihood is that you could descend into rigidly maintaining the status quo whatever the consequences.  In other words, cognitive dissonance kicks in and the decision is defended to all and sundry irrespective of the potential outcome. 

On the other hand, a leader who feels secure,  is comfortable and isn’t concerned with what people may think about him/her, will be able to change a decision and justify it logically.

It seems to me that cognitive dissonance is a potential blight on leadership and consequently on the activity in the whole organisation.  It implies rigidity of thinking and attitude when flexibility and agility are far more desirable and appropriate.

Fear not what others think or say about you.  In the end it is your true self-confidence, your attitude, behaviour and values as a leader that matters above all.  

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Ivan J Goldberg, author, content provider and leadership specialist
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