Every time a freshman walked through the door of our fraternity house he was one step closer to joining – because of Cognitive Dissonance.
“Cognitive Dissonance” refers to the anxiety that results from simultaneously holding attitudes or beliefs that are contradictory or otherwise incompatible to one’s behavior. When a person’s “Cognitive life” (the level of our psyche that is beneath the cerebral) is out of alignment with their “behavioral life,” then “dissonance” (two things occurring simultaneously which do not belong together) occurs in their psyche. This theory extrapolated means, that when people are put in a situation that causes a conflict between their beliefs and their behavior, they are internally driven to change either their beliefs or their behavior, to rid themselves of internal anxiety. Our internal desire to be congruent drives us to reconcile our beliefs and behaviors in order to be in harmony within ourselves.
In the mid-seventies fraternities were at the low end of their popularity among college freshmen. The decline was due to the rejection of all things associated with the “establishment” by the counter-culture of the sixties, including the Greek system on college campuses. The survival of any fraternity depends on the recruitment of new members; therefore my fraternity devised a strategy involving Cognitive Dissonance to combat the decline. Every time a freshman to walked through the door of our fraternity house –even if he was predisposed to not want to join – we created dissonance between his belief (I’ll never join a fraternity) and his actions (I’m enjoying myself at this frat house). In doing so, we moved each prospective member one step closer to joining as he reconciled his dissonance with a change in his belief.
A friend recently gave me a great example of how a person’s actions can change their belief. He told me of a staunch Republican whose son gave her a ticket to Barrak Obama’s inauguration. Even though she was a strong Rush Limbaugh fan and had been a Republican all her life, when she returned from the Inaugural she told everyone that she had become a Democrat. This is a classic case of Cognitive Dissonance. She behaved in a way that was inconsistent with her beliefs, and she had to change her belief in order to be consistent with her behavior.
If you are going to change an organization it is necessary to be aware of the factors involving Cognitive Dissonance within the organization. For example, assume you have been asked to lead an organization whose endemic problem is complacency. The initial challenge will be to change the belief/attitude of your leadership team. Your first step will be to get the leadership to act in a way that creates dissonance between their actions and beliefs. By instituting behavioral change(s) you will be able to change not only their complacent behavior, but also their belief/attitude about complacency.
For example, you ask one of the members of your leadership team to fire one of his subordinates due to lack of performance. By having the leader actually do the firing you will have provoked dissonance within that leader. The leader will then need to resolve his or her own attitude (we’re a company that tolerates complacency) with their behavior (complacency isn’t tolerated).
Or if you are trying to recruit someone to your cause, one of the easiest ways to get the person interested is for them to give even a small amount of money to it. The act of giving will cause the person to believe that you have a great cause, and a great organization because of the dissonance created between their belief (I don’t know anything about this organization) and their action (I am a supporter of this organization).
On a personal level, we can see the effect Cognitive Dissonance has on the deepest levels of our lives. As we change our core beliefs to harmonize with our behaviors – even those behaviors which are not good – we change a part of who we are. Many of us can remember things we used to believe, but don’t believe now. The change in our beliefs may have come, not because the belief was necessarily wrong, but because our actions were inconsistent with what we believed.
In conclusion, when dealing with a Change Leadership situation, you must first know the endemic core beliefs and attitudes of the organization, and the corresponding systemic realities. Once you have identified the endemics and systemics, you will be able to apply the principle of Cognitive Dissonance to change the endemic behavior of the organization, and move to the first stage of a change, “Clean up the mess.”