Cognitive Dissonance in Business

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

I'm often asked for the number one reason a business will call me in to consult with them. I assume they mean aside from my obvious like-ability. And the answer is simple: Cognitive Dissonance. For those who do not know, this is the inconsistency of thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as they relate to behaviors and attitudes. This fact is one of the reasons why I chose to earn a graduate degree in psychology. Combating cognitive dissonance is how I spend most of my time with my clients. It is not that they are ill-informed or ill-intentioned people. Most of my clients are intelligent, personable, and hard-working.

However, relatively few will take the time to examine their own cognitive dissonances.

How does this manifest in business? For instance, I often have executives ask me how to get more productivity out of their hourly workers. This is an oversimplification, but hourly workers sell their time. They have found a buyer for their time, their employer. Their goals are unrelated to productivity and completely related to sales of hourly units of time. Inevitably, they eventually learn to do the least amount of work necessary for their employer to buy that time. (This is also not unlike businesses which, after gaining market share, continue to cheapen their product until they lose customers, albeit under the guise of reducing costs.)

In any relationship, in the beginning, everyone tries harder. Then complacency sets in. As a relationship builds and the parties become more time-invested, they do not try as hard. Many employers have found the answer to that is to switch vendors. So they terminate their senior employees (time vendors) and acquire new time vendors who try harder. This is expensive and short-sighted. It is not unlike someone who loves the beginning of a romantic relationship but never sticks around for the meaty parts of a relationship that only come in time. People who date like this are shallow, and so are employers who hire and fire like this. Serial daters and serial employers have a lot of the same problems.

So what is the answer to the problem? It's also simple. Stop buying time from people if time is not what you want. If you want productivity, buy productivity. If you want something, go get it. But stop bemoaning the fact your time vendor refuses to sell you productivity. Cognitive dissonance is paying for time and asking for productivity. Find productivity vendors instead. Hire employees and attach their compensation to the standards by which you already judge their performance. This can be difficult and usually takes more thought than attaching pay to the hands of a clock. But studies have shown it also results in doubling to quadrupling of productivity, less turnover, and lower overall employment costs. My own experience with my clients has been the same. Which leads me to my final question.

Where do you have cognitive dissonance in your life, whether at home or at work?