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? rbrenwNKuTMYiXVOAZdCmner@ChacWSBItUpqRCUNLlnAoCanyon.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:

A shouting matchAvoid Typing Under the Influence
When we communicate, we can't control how other people interpret our communications. Accidental offense is inevitable, and email is especially likely to produce examples of this problem. What can we do as members of electronic communities when trouble erupts?
A brainWhen You Can't Even Think About It
Some problems are so difficult or scary that we can't even think about how to face them. Until we can think, action is not a good idea. How can we engage our brains for the really scary problems?
Locate your dry cleaning wherever it is in one of the Standard Time Zones of the WorldThe Loopy Things We Do at Work
At the end of the day, your skill at finding humor inside the dull and ordinary can make the difference between going home exhausted and going home in a strait jacket. Adopting a twisted view of the goings-on might just help keep you untwisted.
A diagram of effects illustrating two more loops in the Restructuring-Fear CycleThe Restructuring-Fear Cycle: II
When enterprises restructure, reorganize, downsize, outsource, lay off, or make other organizational adjustments, they usually focus on financial health. Here's Part II of an exploration of how the fear induced by these changes can lead to the need for further restructuring.
Gachi Fernandez and Sergio Cortazzo, professional tango coupleScope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A review meetingComing December 13: Reframing Revision Resentment: II
When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever, we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives that can be helpful. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenHLvwiJetyoYqdjwaner@ChacUhsMvYfwoTZKflyToCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, 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

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. 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.

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.