Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 43;   October 24, 2012: Fooling Ourselves

Fooling Ourselves

by

Humans have impressive abilities to convince themselves of things that are false. One explanation for this behavior is the theory of cognitive dissonance.
Three Card Monte, Jaffa, Israel

Three Card Monte, Jaffa, Israel. Three Card Monte is a con game, usually played on street corners. For an explanation and demonstration, see the video at YouTube, by MisMag822. One of the fundamental principles of many con games is clever exploitation of cognitive dissonance. These games establish in the "mark" a desire to prevail based not on knowledge of the game, but rather on avoiding the unpleasantness of the reality that the play of the con artist is superior to the skill of the mark. Photo (cc) ZioDave, courtesy Wikipedia.

When we simultaneously hold two conflicting beliefs, values, or emotional responses, we're said to be in a state of cognitive dissonance. The theory of cognitive dissonance predicts that in such states, we're driven to resolve the dissonance, sometimes in unexpected ways. Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes is a classic example. Upon discovering some grapes hanging out of reach, and failing to retrieve them after much effort, the fox decides they aren't worth eating, whence comes our metaphor, sour grapes. The fox resolves the dissonance between its desire for grapes and its unwillingness to acknowledge its failure, by removing — without evidence — the desirability of the grapes.

Here are two examples of applying cognitive dissonance theory to workplace behavior.

If you can't do it, we'll find somebody who can
Upon being told that a task is impossible, some supervisors respond with this threat: Do what I ask, or I'll replace you. But it's far more sophisticated than a simple threat. In adhering to the position that the task is impossible, the subordinate would risk a demonstration that someone else is more capable. Since most people would find that outcome deeply troubling, the supervisor is here attempting to place the subordinate in a cognitively dissonant state. For the subordinate, the two conflicting thoughts are (a) the task is impossible and (b) my supervisor is implying that someone else can complete the task, and is therefore more capable than I.
There are at least Some organizations remain
committed to failed
efforts even though
they've clearly failed
three ways out. First, the subordinate can let the supervisor find a replacement, which could potentially lead to demonstrated success and the subordinate's termination. Second, the subordinate can look for alternative employment, while pretending to accept the impossible task. Third, the subordinate can decide that the task is possible. Most choose the latter, because the first two choices are so unpleasant.
Good money after bad
Some organizations remain committed to failed efforts even though they've clearly failed. Two common explanations for such behavior are that the advocates of the effort have a personal interest in continuing the effort, or that they've "lost their objectivity." These mechanisms sometimes apply, but cognitive dissonance can also be important.
Persisting in failed efforts can arise from dissonance between two ideas. First, there is the cherished vision of long ago, namely that the now-failing effort would produce dramatic success. Second is the thought that the effort is indeed failing. To resolve this conflict, advocates of failed efforts can accept failure, and then find a way to believe that their vision capabilities remain powerful, which can be difficult to prove. Alternatively, they can reject the evidence of failure. Many choose the latter, and for them, the project continues. To make that choice, they must find justifications, some of which are both transparently self-serving and transparently incorrect.

Three common explanations of the resolution behavior associated with cognitive dissonance are stupidity, lying, and hypocrisy. All are valid at times, but they're probably overused. Cognitive dissonance is at work at least some of the time. Go to top Top  Next issue: Managing Non-Content Risks: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenCNMVTCkRqSQzNSLIner@ChacQRPwpINalTHxjWYToCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Nez Perce moccasinsThe Fundamental Attribution Error
When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.
A shouting matchCan You Hear Me Now?
Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
A polar bear, feeding, on landResponding to Threats: III
Workplace threats come in a variety of flavors. One class of threats is indirect. Threateners who use the indirect threats aim to evoke fear of consequences brought about not by the threatener, but by other parties. Indirect threats are indeed warnings, but not in the way you might think.
Baron Joseph Lister (1827-1912)Good Change, Bad Change: I
Change is all around. Some changes are welcome and some not, but when we distinguish good change from bad, we often get it wrong. Why?
The Bloomingdale's store in Stamford, Connecticut in January 1955Why Scope Expands: I
Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction, has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?

See also Emotions at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The end of the line for a railroad trackComing May 30: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters? Available here and by RSS on May 30.
Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sAnd on June 6: Chronic Peer Interrupters: II
People use a variety of tactics when they're interrupted while making contributions in meetings. Some tactics work well, while others carry risks of their own. Here's Part II of a little survey of those tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrencHtrAVrQYWGmPlexner@ChacAEVeDyfvzuWLnoMSoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Case
This Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Caseprogram outlines the steps necessary for deploying a program for rational management of technical debt. For many organizations, adopting a program for rationally managing technical debt entails organizational change. And unlike some organizational changes, this one touches almost everyone in the organization, because technical debt isn't merely a technical problem. Technical debt manifests itself in technological assets, to be sure, but its causes are rarely isolated to the behavior and decisions of engineers. We can't resolve the problem of chronically excessive levels of technical debt by changing the behavior of engineers alone. Technical debt is the symptom, not the problem. In this program we outline the essential elements of an effective business case for adopting a rational technical debt management program. But this business case, unlike many business cases, cannot be captured in a document. We must make the case not only at the leadership level of the organization, but also at the level of the individual contributor. Everyone must understand. Everyone must contribute. We explore five issues that make technical debt so difficult to manage, and develop five guidelines for designing technical debt management strategies for the modern enterprise. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.