Congratulations to the new tennis champion who has taken the world by storm, Emma Raducanu. Congratulations to the woman who has broken the barriers of stigmatized diversity. Congratulations to the success she portrays to other dreamers around the world. However, just like any success story, several sharks will surround this star to take credit. The world has gone crazy for a second wanting Emma Raducanu to represent them.
Emma comes from a Romanian descent and speaks the language fluently, but she never lived there. Her mother is Chinese, she also speaks the language fluently, but she never lived there. She was born in Canada and left the country when she was two, and never lived there again. She grew up, studied and learned tennis in the UK. Does that make her British, Romanian, Chinese or Canadian? To these four sharks of the world, does this star represent you? Or does she represent herself?
In the United Kingdom, 58% of black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) millenials are more likely to be unemployed compared to their white counterparts. Also, in Canada, 25% of the whole population (i.e. approximately 9,397,316 people) have a negative view towards individuals from different backgrounds, and only 44% of Canadians believe that racialized Canadians are treated the same as white Canadians in the workplace. Last but not least, according to The Standardized World Income Inequality Database, China topped the charts as the most unequal country in the world.
That being said, we can see how the statistics are misaligned with the praise for Emma Raducanu’s success. In general, Emma’s story and the fight for her representation is an example of how we activate biases to our advantage whenever this suits us. In other words, the sharks of the story are the perfect example of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance: A Definition
This seemingly complex term is incredibly easy to understand. Simply put, when people hold and experience two contradicting cognitions, they experience a negative affective state called “dissonance”. During such situations, people are motivated to decrease this negative state by running away from their thoughts through repression or rationalization.
In other words, Cognitive dissonance is a four step process:
- Cognitive discrepancy: Two or more cognitions conflict
- Dissonance: Uncomfortable negative affective state
- Motivation: Motivated information and/or behavior to reduce dissonance
- Discrepancy reduction: Adjusting cognitions to reduce cognitive discrepancy
Examples of Corporate Cognitive Dissonance
Although it is difficult to be aware of these states due to instant motivations to reduce the conflict, that does not mean it is not greatly present in the workplace. For example, before COVID-19 occurred, people were less motivated to work from home, now however, employees are preferring to work from home. When confronting such employees, it will often result in cognitive dissonance.
Another example is when individuals or countries praise diversity in the workplace, yet employees from diverse backgrounds still suffer from inequality and discrimination.
Furthermore, on a macro level, companies by themselves often face dissonance. For instance, take “taxi and Uber”, or “blockbuster and netflix”, or “hotels and airbnb”. All of these concepts are an example of dissonance especially when the failing industries refused change until someone else took the initiative to grow more.
Cognitive Dissonance among Employees in the Workplace
Research indicates that cognitive dissonance is majorly experienced among employees due to improper leadership styles, workplace practices, clashing cultures, discrimination, and/or bullying.
Let us take this simple scenario – Elise comes from a diverse multicultural background among several other employees in a company. Elise is a tech genius and a vocal advocate for diversity in her area. One day, a new manager for the department was recruited. The manager is not quite fond of individuals from diverse backgrounds but never has been vocal of his preferences in the workplace but only on social media. For two months, Elise tried to remain objective with her new manager whom she has direct communications with on a daily basis. However, everytime she did so, she had to take several deep breaths to calm herself. Elise, being a smart and extroverted vocal advocate, has started to sense favoritism and racial bias coming from her manager which were especially apparent during the performance appraisal. Hence, she communicated this issue loudly with the HR department, while the latter refused her proposal and approach. After a while, Elise shut down communications and her overall performance dropped, leading to her resignation.
Our first reaction would be to label Elise as an individual who is not as diverse as she claimed to be, and that she will never be able to keep a job if she remains with this behavior. However, this is not the case. So what really went wrong?
- Elise’ belief system was “Workplace environments must be diverse and accepting”.
- A new manager who is vocal on social media about his dislike for diversity was recruited forcing her to work in an environment that goes against her beliefs about diversity and inclusion in the workplace (Cognitive Discrepancy).
- Elise tried to work through this state but it led to severe negative affective states impacting her performance (Dissonance).
- Elise became vocal with the HR department (Motivation).
- Elise quit her job (Discrepancy Reduction).
Elise is not to blame here for her state of mind, and maybe her decision was the best decision. That does not make Elise unfit to the corporate world, but unfit to this organization only.
Cognitive dissonance among employees undoubtedly leads to severe effects on the individual (negative emotional states such as stress, anxiety and depression), the teams (miscommunication, disengagement, and in severe conditions workplace bullying and aggression), and the overall performance of the department in general. Thus, we can’t eliminate this hidden ingredient when assessing the causes of employee turnover, absenteeism, and improper performance.
Cognitive Dissonance among Leaders in the Workplace
Just like employees, leaders also experience cognitive dissonance in many ways. Whether it be at a global level similar to the previous example with Emma Raducanu or at the macro level when dealing with new strategies for their organizations or even when dealing with diversity and inclusion strategies among employees at the micro level.
Moreover, leaders are often viewed as role models and expected to inspire their employees to engage in activities that do not often coincide with their personal and professional values.
For instance, Jeff Bezos has been scolded by his employees stating that Amazon is not keen on diversity and inclusion. Whereas, one of the quotes by Jeff Bezos says “It’s not only that diversity and inclusion are good for our business. It’s more fundamental than that — it’s simply right.” Can we fairly claim that this Leader is in a state of Cognitive Dissonance? Yes! In fact, one of the many drawbacks of leaders claiming such a big statement that is not aligned with their actions within their company, is the loss of employee respect, motivation and commitment for the company’s goals.
A genuine advice to all the leaders of the world: stay true to yourselves and your words.
Tell Me Now, How Can I Reduce It?!
As the model stated, we are always motivated to reduce the discrepancy between cognitions. But do you think what you usually do is healthy? Most people, as priorly mentioned, will repress the new conflicting thought and remain committed to their habitual behaviors. After all, smokers will smoke even when they know it causes cancer! Some others would rationalize the thought by lying to themselves. A smoker will claim that their grandmothers and fathers still smoke and are perfectly healthy, so why should they smoke!
We all know that changing one’s beliefs and habits tend to be extremely hard. However, we also know that cognitive dissonance has severe negative effects on us and on our surroundings. But the good news is that resolving cognitive dissonance can lead to positive changes. You might even be in a cognitively dissonant state by thinking of changing the cognitive dissonance states you are in. So what you can do initially is not to take a huge leap of faith, changing your whole life, beliefs, attitudes, and habits, but a little shift in perspective that can lead you to healthier thought patterns.
According to Gallagher, “The key is identifying it, assessing it, and figuring out how to resolve it”.
Here are simple steps you can follow to reduce your dissonance:
- Step 1: Accept that all human beings are susceptible to cognitive dissonance.
- Step 2: Identify where you might be experiencing this state at work (the problem). Write it down along with its trigger, emotions felt, and behaviors associated with it.
- Step 3: Ask yourselves: why Am I behaving like this? Write down the contradictory beliefs about certain situations.
- Step 4: Now, along each problem ask yourselves the following:
- Can I control the situation without changing my beliefs?
- Can I influence the situation towards my favor?
- If not, do I leave it alone and not compromise my emotional wellbeing?
In conclusion, cognitive dissonance is a debilitating state of mind that very much often leads to confusion and other negative affective states. Whether we like it or not, we can’t get rid of this state once and for all. As long as humans are capable of thinking and behaving, cognitive dissonance will remain. Our one and only solution is to embrace this condition by acknowledging its presence and never repressing it.