Cognitive Dissonance as a leading indicator


Didier Marlier

September 19, 2009

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Financial data are lagging indicators. Corporate myopia consists of obsessing about them and failing to see the Tsunami or the (Blue!) Ocean of opportunity ahead.

Companies therefore seek to identify and work on “leading” indicators.
During a recent meeting in Brussels with colleagues and friends (N. van Heck, M. Newman, N. McRoberts and F.D.C. Professor D. Sardenberg) the notion of using “Cognitive Dissonance” as an indicator came up.

Wikipedia provides the following definition of the phenomenon: “an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The “ideas” or “cognitions” in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one’s behavior, and facts. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance.” (

In other terms, when there is dissonance, our brain has learned to rapidly build a bridge over the contradiction to reduce our malaise. A simple example is about smokers: They all know their habit to be deadly but have each found more or less consciously a way to pseudo-rationalize a justification it so that they may enjoy each cigarette instead of feeling torn between two opposite ideas in their mind.

As we see, this very useful “coping” mechanism (enabling us to live with apparently contradicting ideas) can also be deadly and lead to dangerous blindness: recently, the CEO of a much respected consumer electronic goods manufacturer appeared in the press, blaming it and the consumers for failing to see the superiority of his company’s latest product against the much celebrated one of a competitor. He added that his company was now going to go head to head against the enemy. My first feeling was “Sell short!” followed by: Could this be cognitive dissonance? A well intentioned and passionate CEO believes in his firm ability to produce superior technology and finds it hard to cope with the enthusiasm generated by a lower technology competing offer. Unfortunately, the way to cope with it (denying markets feedback, blaming the press and attacking the competitor) will probably not help him regain users’ affection nor market share.

Recognizing Cognitive Dissonance and its potentially dangerous coping mechanism is a very rich mine of information for leaders in their firms. The stronger their reaction “against” the dissonant comment coming from the outside, the deeper their rejection from the maverick’s suggestion coming from within their organization should be a leading indicator that they risk falling into corporate blindness.

We welcome your comments and reactions to help us progress in that promising filed.
Kind regards


  1. Alexandre Tocchetto Pauperio

    Congratulations by the post. This is absolutely true. We’ve perceive this here in Brazil from small business and its leaders. Understand the stress between both way is a good beginning to new times.

  2. Arto Joensuu

    Very interesting post with great thinking (as always). Your notion of cognitive dissonance reminds me of a similar phenomenon that i’ve wrote an earlier blog post about. ( “Watch out for the analog people”) In the marketing community, we’ve begun labelling these people as “analog people”. They have built a successfull career on analog/one-way media, which has pretty much been print & TV. These marketing leaders have traditional brand attributes (such as tone of voice, visual consistency etc) at the heart of their existence. They recognize the emergence of digital media and that this “revolution” will (one day) kill their analog existence, but refuse to change their way of working/thinking. Instead, they desperately cling onto their faded glory and wait for a “post digital era” (or their retirement).

  3. Tritia Neeb

    Dear Dids,

    As yourself I’ve recently become interested in Albert Ellis and his Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). In one of his many books he makes the following statement about Cognitive Dissonance (in his language Cognitive Emotive Dissonance): “Healthy Human Brains do not care about facts, healthy brains are programmed to create only the emotional reactions that are most logical for people’s strongest, existing beliefs about facts that they are focused on at the moment. The second medical fact is this: Healthy human brains genetically are programmed to make all facts that conflict with an existing personal belief, feel wrong at first. The REBT name for these initially unavoidable ‘wrong feelings’ is congitive-emotive dissonances (CED). The almost universally understood example of CED is the wrong feelings Europeans get when they drive in England. Although you know the correct way to drive is on the left side, driving the correct way feels totally wrong to you at first. Only after enough practise any new learning that conflicts with existing beliefs, begins to feel right.”
    So I guess it’s not only our challenge to regonise Cognitive Dissonance in ourselves and others, but once spotted it requires some very strong training and practise to make your new way of working or new belief feel right. And we all know that only if it feels good, our actions will be sustainable.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. didier

    To Tritia,
    This is matching with my simplistic understanding of REBT and Ellis’ far deeper thinking: Once a “tape” (ie. an internal way to rationalize a dissonance) is identified, it is helpful to work with (in that therapeutic case) “the patient” to help them identify an equally authentic but positive tape that they can play when the negative one starts. I guess the parallel with leadership is about identifying those negative tapes/stories/pseudo rationale and work with the organization to replace them by positives. Thank you for that interesting thought… Didier
    To Arto, I like your distinction between “Analog” and “Digital” leaders. A fascinating study of the headhunters Korn Ferry (ending into an good HBR article: “The seasoned Executive’s Decison Making Style” Reprint 0602F from February 2006) suggests that the critical difference explaining why execs succeed or fail in their career is their capacity or not to adapt/flex their internal and external styles.
    I will recommend your blog to all interested. First class for those of us who want to understand marketing and (VERY) new technologies! Thank you Didier

  5. didier

    Thanks a lot Alexandre, a GREAT video: Indeed if the leaders fail to prepare their followers to scan their environment in a meaningfull, purposefull way, they will fait to sport the (Blue!) Ocean of opportunities ahead!!! The lady stops at the end because she could make sense of what happened…
    EXCELLENT thank you for sharing this! Abraços! Didier

  6. Michael Newman

    Now that my attention has been captured by the future readiness / cognitive dissonance connection I am seeing examples everywhere. I am currently enjoying a book ‘Risk – The Science and Politics of Fear’ by Dan Gardner, Virgin Books 2008. It is on the reading list of the Risk community of one of the big UK banks, and talks about Confirmation Bias: “We all do it. Once a belief is in place, we screen what we see and hear in a biased way that ensures our beliefs are ‘proven’ correct.” As a personal example, and building on a previous comments, I have a mass of ‘evidence’ going back to Roman times that ‘proves’ that driving on the left is the ‘correct’ way to do things, and is therefore only uncomfortable to those who have picked up bad habits from the French!
    The subject cropped up yesterday again when I was asked about the Ladder of Inference. My mind was blank, but I looked it up and found a very neat 2 page summary by Gene Bellenger that credits our old friend Chris Argyris and Peter Senge’s ‘The Fifth Discipline’. Do take 5 minutes to look at . The psychology of dissonance, risk and skewed decision making are powerfully interconnected.
    Gardner’s book about Risk is also insightful about scenarios, illustrating how and why some become highly compelling and draw attention, resources and investment away from more worthy pursuits. The book is especially provocative about the human and financial cost of the fear of terrorism. He advocates the return of disciplined critical thinking as a counterbalance to the power of emotionally engaging stories and narratives.
    Finally I am recalling an example of the cost of paying attention to one thing at the cost of another. A global bank I worked with in 2004-2005 invested a huge amount of effort to become compliant with Sarbanes Oxley. This of course was designed to prevent the Enron / World Com type events happening again. Naturally, as Compliance rose up the agenda, it captured the attention of the Board and senior executives. A previously effective and influential Group Audit function found itself marginalised, with many of its star performers poached by the new and sexy Compliance department. Morale dropped, and the Auditors lost the capacity, resources and support to properly oversee some of the Bank’s more risky strategies. So how much of the current financial crises can be attributed to the focus on Sarbanes Oxley leading to blindness about other far greater risks?

  7. didier

    Thank you Michael for this excellent extra pieces of information and powerful links to the reality.
    One place I would dispute Gardner is that it is not emotionally engaging stories and narratives (bringing us sometimes to populism and mass manipulation) which are the issue. Critical thinking in isolation has also demonstrated its incapacity to change the course of things. I would argue that business leaders do need BOTH critical thinking (as a way to avoid groupthink and work with cognitive dissonance) and capacity to link their message with the emotional agenda/Pathos… if they want to be heard and followed.
    Thanks for that great contribution, again. Didier

  8. Michael Newman

    There is no need to dispute Gardner. He is clear that cold logic without a narrative hook has little impact, whilst highly emotive stories without critical thinking can mislead. He advocates the skilled use of both.

  9. Leen de Waal

    Hi Didier!
    Very interesting perspective indeed. You may find help in two great philosophers who have very different positions. The first one, C.S. Peirce, the founding father of American Pragmatism, has actually explained the ‘coping mechanism’ quite well: People tend to construct ‘beliefs’ to deal with the uneasiness caused by perceived problems. The other one is G.W.F. Hegel, and more specifically, his dialectics: cognitive dissonance is avoiding a dialectic situation. If the current situation is the ‘thesis’ and changes in the environment would call for an ‘antithesis’, then dialectics would/could help us to find a ‘synthesis’ at a transceding level, but this unleashed potential of ‘terra incognita’ can be frightening. (that’s why I like your tsunami metaphor; looks like too much energy unleashed…so just stay away from it…). I’m convinced it would be very interesting, and useful to develop Hegel’s dialectics into a managerial concept (first rough ideas for a ‘workshop’ in this field are under construction…). But unfortunately both in society, and at organisational level almost all of the systems we have/use are aimed at securing (and sometimes expanding) what we have, and avoiding the risks of unexplored territories…

  10. didier

    Thank you dear Leen for this new high quality contribution. If I understand you well, leaders would be well inspired, when they “feel” or intuite that something is disturbing, not to reject it (by using coping mechanism) but rather HAVE THE COURAGE to engage into exploring why that is. Count on me/us if you wish to push further your idea of workshop in the field. Good to hear back from you!!! Didier

  11. Beth JERVIS

    My thoughts on that “cognitive dissonance”:

    Is all language basically involving a process of repression through words because no one word stands alone, but belongs in each context to a semantic context and many other semantic contexts ? Sense is essentially dependant on how we have worked and wired our categorical understanding with respect to social situations and which possibilities we trust, condone, call truth or untruth. So dissonance can exist in condradiction, but is also constantly present in an organisation. Of course, contradiction is the explosive deviant, as it crosses the line from ambiguous or metaphorical to debateable, to highly improbable or scientifically impossible, implying stupidity, or, that the receiver is stupid to believe a blatant untruth, (deemed so by current society, zeitgeist, or physical properties), so making the receiver angry. The gap between professional circles and personal circles of accepted behaviour is being stretched by pushing one to suspend ones disbelief a little too far for the name of “corporate values” which become derisory and a central subject to negativity and negative counterproductive projections. Sometimes the anger is visible and the analytical process isn’t because we have touched on a nerve.

    In the professional world standard language can be reassuring because it consists of familiar vocabulary and familiar lexical and semantic sets, but it belongs to the institution and if it is too dogmatic it doesn’t work. The institution “or boss” belongs in an arena where trust is implicit because we “suspend our political or professional belief” under certain circumstances in order to protect our status or position and remain in good spirits. Dissonance can greatly impact stability and create tension.

    However, cognitive dissonance in another light can also create positivity and new openings for innovation to flourish. Stability is a tool for productivity, but it is also a control tool and towards defining the status quo. Having a great amount of control over a complicit mediocre team is perhaps not every leader’s dream. A type of poetic licence in leadership, or volontary dissonance in choice of strategy can also create portals to inspiration or exception. Politics for instance. the semantic value of evocative vs provocative is essentially a post mortem realisation. To prevoke we evoke, but prevoking infers disrupting norms, value patterns, and sometimes going to clash or contradiction. In otherwords, we take risks when we state we will do something new and then act on it, but in its pure form this evocation or vision is essentially a contingent idea that we rework into a system, asking the system to meet it, or expand to incorporate it. One needs to have a strong team behind them to be capable of success when dealing with novelty because the team has to be sure enough of both the tools and the vision that will deliver them to the ultimate goal.

    I find that the juice of a natural leader boils down to a very nifty capability to design, innovative aesthetics for sparking entrepreneurial thought processes, or muse. It definitely comes partially through poetic licence which hints at contradiction and in so doing breaks down naturally weakening control systems already collectively heading towards extinction in an organisation. It definitely comes partially under the heading of risk taking to volontarily opt for a mode of expression or a business line which leaves a gap between common accepted systems and a future vision, which can also be perceived as anarchist behaviour, but ones talent is also ones ability to illuminate an idea as opposed to throwing statements that lead into confusion or are not sufficiently clear or thought through to be trustworthy. We can also produce believable contradictions. If it is with insight, presence, personality, that we introduce dissonance, those around us will want to step up a level to bridge the gap, rather than destroy it. We make others follow because they desire to see what their leader sees. Cognitive dissonance is very caught up with this state of being that characterises a natural leader, the atypical visionary, the rule breaker who respects his fellow human beings in the rulebreaking process and engages those around with a beautiful trail of thought which inspires actions which are above standards. Or course we still need standards. However I would suggest there is more aboutness to the “about cognitive dissonance” than analogies to contradiction would have us initially perceive. 😉


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