Coaching Spotlight: Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance poses a formidable challenge to anybody involved in the business of training, coaching, leading, guiding or managing people. It is a very uncomfortable feeling experienced by individuals when two conflicting ideas (or beliefs) are held simultaneously.

Dissonance is experienced not only when two opposing beliefs coexist, but also when one’s behavior contradicts one’s beliefs. For example, when someone who believes that lying is wrong tells a lie, he/she is likely to experience cognitive dissonance; because, their belief does not accord with their behavior.

Cognitive dissonance poses a challenge to communication, especially when communicating for teaching new behaviors or for triggering change, because whenever people are exposed to new ideas (especially ones that question their existing beliefs or require them to critically re-examine their current practices), they are likely to experience the intense psychological discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance. Therefore, any communication, training or intervention designed to cause or facilitate change faces the challenge of effectively managing the cognitive dissonance experienced by the recipients. If not skillfully done, the message might lead to resentment, and in most cases rejection of the new ideas. This is because our beliefs are linked with our attitudes and values, which, for most of us, are not easy to change.

A lot of research has been done that tries to explain how people come to terms with the phenomenal psychological discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance. Research indicates that even in the light of overwhelming evidence indicating that a previously held belief is incorrect, people generally tend to hold on to that belief. But, to be able to continue their lives normally, they need to tackle the dissonance caused by the new evidence that challenges the existing belief. This they might do by misinterpreting or reinterpreting the information to minimize dissonance (Gordon, G. 2005). The following are some common strategies that people tend to use when troubled by cognitive dissonance:

• Denial: People may question the new information, its source or correctness, and reject it by declaring the source as unreliable or inauthentic – refusing to accept that there is any need to change at all.

• Rationalization: People may find valid reasons for their existing invalid beliefs (e.g. “We may be wrong, but so is everybody else, so why must ‘we’ be the ones to change? (Or, it’s our way against theirs – who’s to determine who is right?) ” — pointing out their valid concerns regarding the inequities that could occur if they were to accept the change, and using this valid concern as a reason to stick with the earlier invalid belief). Sometimes, the reasons may be little more than excuses.

• Escalation of commitment: Angry that their beliefs are challenged, people may perceive it as a conspiracy against them, and invest more heavily in preserving their earlier ways. This is likely to happen when the beliefs in question are linked with people’s individual, social, religious or ethnic identities.

This is why, while designing and delivering any kind of training to employees, or students, we must pay close attention to who they think they are; and, be creative in devising and using communication strategies that will minimize dissonance and effectively manage it to achieve the desired learning outcomes.

Dr. Hardeep Anant is Associate Professor and Department Chair for Business Management at City University College of Ajman. He has extensive experience in providing consultancy and training for many renowned multinational organizations, banks and educational institutions throughout the Middle East.