The ‘unindicted ejaculator’, cognitive dissonance and leadership

Guest Contributor Rachel Stone, recruitment coach at UK recruitment agency RSE Group, offers this striking view on the power of cognitive dissonance. Her points on performance and leadership are highly applicable to those of us providing and developing healthcare tech and services, which are dependent on our view of our end users.

What can the DNA, a prosecution team and the ‘unindicted ejaculator’ teach us about leadership?

Do you know the kind of situation where you really believe something and you desperately want it to be true? For example, you believe that you are right about something and if it turns out that you were wrong it would be quite painful?

What if you believed that a person was guilty of something terrible in your company? What if you were sure they had done this dreadful thing? All your instincts told you it was their fault and your belief had caused you to act in a certain way and led you to taking drastic action. If you had to go back on this, it could cost your dearly in terms of finance and reputation. Heaven forbid you were wrong……

As a good leader, you would have checked your evidence… You would have been sure to check your facts… Surely you would have not have taken that action if there wasn’t the right evidence available…

Sometimes, despite our best endeavours, our brain plays tricks on us when our beliefs are challenged.  Our brain tries so hard to up-hold our beliefs and can go to extreme lengths to maintain the status quo.  Our brains don’t like our beliefs being challenged. Even when there is undeniable evidence.

The study of this human trait is covered by cognitive dissonance theory:

According to cognitive dissonance theory, (Leon Festinger) there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviours (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. (24 Nov 2010)

There is a great deal to learn about this – especially as leaders.  Important decisions are made all day, every day.  All behaviours are based on beliefs and leadership behaviour must be exemplary. You act on what you believe in.

I’ve been blown away by what the excellent book “Black Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed can teach leaders about cognitive dissonance. I would urge you to check yourself in relation to this.  (In fact, I would recommend Syed’s book as mandatory for all leaders or potential leaders of the future, such is the importance of the learning contained within, not just this chapter.)

Syed describes, with compelling stories based in research and evidence, just how difficult it is for people to acknowledge when they are wrong. (more…)