Impacts of Cognitive Dissonance in the Workplace

Impacts of Cognitive Dissonance in the Workplace

cognitive dissonenceTheory of Cognitive Dissonance (CD) describes a condition of stress, or a feeling of internal discomfort caused by conflicting ideas, values, beliefs or practices. Essentially, this is a situation where two or more opposing thoughts are causing psychological discomfort. Humans have an inner drive to maintain harmony between attitudes, beliefs and practices and when faced with an internal clash or those cognitions, our natural reaction is to reduce or eliminate it to prevent emotional discomfort. Theory of cognitive dissonance offers three options for reducing stress: changing attitudes or beliefs, acquiring new information (dissonance reduction process) and reducing the importance of cognitions (internal reasoning and justification) (Cooper, 2007).

Cognitive Dissonance in the workplace is common and a significant cause of stress for professionals working in organisational support functions, such as risk management and human resources. In those functions, people are sometimes exposed to, or coerced towards tolerating, supporting and executing tasks which are in deep conflict with their sense of right and wrong, training, ethics, or personal values. Fundamental importance of those internal set of beliefs needs to be emphasised as in majority of cases, those are primary factors responsible for people choosing those occupations as a career path. For many of them, being health, safety and environmental advisors, trainers, nurses, paramedics, or human resources professionals is far more than a profession, it is a calling. When faced with conflicting beliefs and practices and the pressure to tolerate them, those professionals often experience deep personal dissatisfaction, distress and a state of permanent tension which can result in a range of personal health effects as well as chronic impairments to individual work performance.

There are many examples and scenarios which can cause cognitive dissonance in support functions, ranging from having to observe inappropriate and poor leadership practices to being asked to perform tasks which are not in line with procedures, norms, training, organisational or personal values. For example, a HR manager who is asked to dismiss an employee for misconduct without appropriate evidence or with the evidence pointing against the actions being taken will experience significant cognitive dissonance. On one side, his internal values, sense of right and wrong and knowledge of long term organisational damage will be placed directly against the expectations of senior decision maker and potential negative impact to his career. It is a fine balancing act and it is not surprising to see high stress levels as a by-product of those choices.

Similarly, a project health and safety advisor who is asked by his manager to ensure that an incident investigation “goes easy” on certain factors will experience similar symptoms. In many cases where a person makes a conscious choice to execute a particular task (stressor) against his beliefs and values, the stress does not dissipate afterwards but rather becomes chronic, and with variable intensity. This often leads to workplace related depression. Regardless how much we try to change internal values and beliefs in order to reduce cognitive dissonance, this is not always possible. Even in best case scenarios, some residual stress is left for a considerable amount of time, mostly because the change of beliefs is incomplete and forced by external factors as opposed to voluntary internal realisations and adaptation of the personal overarching ‘view of the world’.

Interestingly, it seems that when faced with stressors of this kind, a good percentage of people still choose to execute tasks they so deeply disagree with. They do this for several reasons such as:

· Positional Obedience – justifying their actions because instruction has arrived from a person of greater authority (“outside of my control, I have to do it”)

· Normalisation – process of internal justification (“It is unpleasant but all part of the job” “others do it too”) or

· Emotional Trading – calculating that a future reward for obedience is worth the compromise of beliefs and values

All of those are part of internal justification methods. When faced with real life choices in the workplace this rationale seems much more logical than when analysed later. In other words, we tend to be prone to persuade ourselves towards the choice which seems to be the easiest option at the time; however this is usually a very short lasting belief. We live to regret lots of choices we make.

Another powerful reason for a decision not to challenge uncomfortable instructions is a natural human tendency towards avoiding a confrontation with an authority figure and negative emotional experience which comes from it. All personnel in positions of authority really need to be aware of that, in terms of their leadership style and approach.

Unaddressed, cognitive dissonance in the workplace often cause the following effects:

· Increased absenteeism. This is one of the most common effects of cognitive dissonance in the workplace. People are finding it emotionally easier to justify their absenteeism than to be exposed to stress causing factors. In author’s opinion, the existence of cognitive dissonance related absenteeism is well under recognised and under reported, which decreases opportunities for introduction of various corrective actions. This early indicator of workplace stress is often masked by excuses and is often only discovered when formal processes of performance management are applied. Financial losses to organisations arising from this type of absenteeism are obvious and significant

· Withdrawal and disengagement. Stressed employees are not productive employees. They often withdraw, cease to put their ideas forward and if they remain in the organisation, they function primarily in employment preservation mode. This has a significant impact and influence on other employees and the overall organisational culture. Employees suffering from cognitive dissonance often alienate themselves and others, and are disengaged from the key organisation processes they meant to support and drive

· Significant reduction in performance – directly resulting from the above two points

· Negativity and Inappropriate Behaviour. In addition to stress, people suffering from work-related cognitive dissonance also experience a range of other negative emotions such as disappointment, anxiety, and anger which can manifest in a range of counterproductive behaviours such as:

1. Silent Obstruction – intentional actions (failing to do) aimed at disrupting various organisational processes and causing damage

2. Malicious Compliance – intentional actions aimed at causing damage such as following all rules into finest possible detail, even when that is completely counterproductive and

3. Sabotage – Although relatively rare, those are intentional actions aimed purely at causing organisational or personal damage

4. Aggression and other disruptive behaviour

· High staff turnover. Eventually if not addressed, most cases of chronic cognitive dissonance will result in people departing from organisations. This is often a significant business loss in terms of organisational knowledge and resources used in recruitment, training and development. It also has an adverse impact to organisational reputation and future hiring of high calibre candidates

· Adverse health effects. Chronic workplace stress caused by cognitive dissonance often results in a range of negative health effects such as depression, fatigue, anxiety and many others. Those are especially likely in situations where a person feels that he or she is “out of options” and has to continue exposure to a stress inducing environment due to financial or other constrains

· Workplace stress claims

If not addressed in a timely manner, some cases of cognitive dissonance can easily alienate a person from the organisation and create a perception that the only way out of the situation is through making a workplace stress claim. Undoubtedly there are cases where this appears to be the only option. In presence of specific events and witnesses, likelihood of the workplace stress claims can dramatically increase, often with very expensive results.

Common causes for cognitive dissonance in organisational support functions are factors such as particular management or leadership style, bullying, discrimination, application of double standards, inappropriate or unethical business practices and many others. Addressing those is the key for reduction of the cognitive dissonance in the workplace.

Internal Rationalisation – Circles of Control & Organisational Envelope

For a practicing risk management or a HR professional, coming to terms with certain organisational decisions, instructions and practices can often be a matter of professional survival. In majority of cases causes for cognitive dissonance can be traced to organisational deficiencies and culture, as well as substandard and inappropriate leadership behaviours and practices which are sometimes tolerated at certain organisational levels. As cultures in organisations can take years to change, support professionals are instrumental in facilitating this process. As a result, dealing with cognitive dissonance becomes a necessary survival skill, especially since in reality there are only two choices available. Dealing with cognitive dissonance and winning the battle, or leaving the organisation. Many outstanding professionals depart organisations long before they have had a chance to have a maximum positive organisational impact.

So how do we internally rationalise what we witness or have to enact, in order to distance ourselves and reduce internal stress?

All three traditional and theoretical options of reducing the CD induced stress levels have their merit but also limitations. For example, a task of changing people values is an arduous one as values are deeply ingrained in human psyche and heavily dependent on a variety of factors forming the individual view of the world. Dissonance reduction through obtaining new information and therefore reducing the importance of cognitions is an easier option. When dealing with the workplace cognitive dissonance the very first and the most important step of dealing with CD induced stress should be an internal analysis based on an individual span of control, operational envelope and a relationship of positional responsibility – accountability – authority. This is the first line of internal defence which should focus on critical internal analytical questions, as a self-check.


Fig.1 – First Line of Defence from Cognitive Dissonance in the Workplace (RiskWise Solutions, 2015)

What does this mean exactly? As humans, we are prone to emotional response to issues, situations and processes which are in misalignment with our values. More importantly, we are prone to emotional thinking which is often a circular process, feeding on itself and perceived stressors, over and over again. As this process continues, it often amplifies emotions and keeps our rational and analytical thinking supressed. Contrary to common advice used when dealing with people and decisions, emotions can never really be ‘placed aside’. They in many ways form a critical part of making the right decisions. In situations which are causing cognitive dissonance, having emotions under control but active in the background is the key in being able to rationally analyse internal stressors and exercise critical thinking.

Essential elements of this internal analysis are:

· Define and contextualise stressors. Write them down if necessary. Name your problems and establish a degree of their significance to you personally. For example, are they inconvenient, unsettling or simply unbearable?

· Map those problems and break them down into their basic components

· For each component, establish your personal control, influence, responsibility, accountability and authority

Critical point in dealing with internal stress and dissonance is in analysis of personal and positional limitations and creation of internal emotional satisfaction by acknowledging that everything which can be done is being done about the problem at hand. This can be illustrated with the following diagram and a set of internal questions:


Figure 2 – Individual Operational Envelope and Circles of Responsibility (RiskWise Solutions, 2015)

· Direct Control (Doer)

The issue is within my direct control, authority and accountability. Can I make a decision, change my approach or execute a direct decision which can eliminate or reduce the problem? Is this completely within my positional power and authority? If I cannot make a decision, what is the reason? What are my barriers? Do I have authority and accountability? What else can I do apart from what I have already done?

· Indirect Control (Influencer/ enforcer)

The issue is within my control but it needs to be solved by others. What and who do I need to coach to enable a different point of view without forcing the decision? How do I pass the message, inspire and guide? Have I done everything I possibly could to solve the problem, as I still have accountability?

· Strong Influence (Coach)

The issue is not within my direct control or accountability but I have a powerful ability to influence actions. Have I prompted the conversation or tried to influence other decision makers? Are any other influencing strategies worth exploring?

· Weak Influence (Guide)

I have no control over the issue but I may be able to offer alternative thinking. Have I tried my best in promoting different ideas and solutions with key stakeholders, without causing relationship damage?

· No Control or Influence (Observer)

I have no control and/or influence over the issue. Any further attempts are likely to cause damage.

This may sound like common sense to some, however in author’s experience increase in CD related stress is on the rise which indicates that what we perceive as ‘common sense’ may not be common at all.

The above is a simple method and a useful strategy in dealing with dilemmas in decision making and workplace stress by achieving internal conformation and an acknowledgement of individual efforts. Each particular component of the problem may be found anywhere within the operational envelope and a careful rationalisation will often cast a different light on an issue and provide an emotional relief from stress. It is a process of objective thinking, analysis and rationalisation. The relief comes from realisation that we often experience stress over things which are completely outside of our control or on contrary, completely within our decision making authority. This enables us to emotionally distance ourselves from the continuous influence of stressors, or on the other hand make decisions which are often difficult but result in significant relief from the CD induced stress; even if they may be difficult and unpleasant. The alternative is prolonged stress and negative health and social impact, not only on the person but also on the surrounding environment.

Potential physical and mental health implications arising from CD induced stress are a serious problem in all industries, at all organisational stratum levels and they deserve more attention and further studies from experts in organisational psychology.


Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. London: Sage Publications.

Festinger, L. (1957) A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Goran Prvulovic

Goran Prvulovic

Director & Principal Consultant at RiskWise Solutions
Goran Prvulovic
Goran is a HSE Professional from Western Australia with multi industry experience, currently operating in the power generation industry as a Regional HSE Manager. His career in the Western Australian mining industry began in 1989 where Goran performed a multitude of operational and leadership roles, culminating in a full time engagement as a safety professional in 2005. Goran’s specialties include Safety Culture, Leadership and Operational Discipline interventions and catastrophic risk profiling and management. Goran holds a Master’s Degree in OHS from Edith Cowen University in Western Australia. He also holds a number of vocational educational accreditations and is currently undertaking further studies in the area of Management and Leadership. Goran has held a number of senior HSE management positions in Western Australian Mining where he has managed multidisciplinary teams as well as lead and assisted in development and implementation of HSE management systems. He also developed a number programs aimed at leadership development, improvement of safety culture and operational discipline in several organisations. He is currently developing his consultancy business focused on safety leadership and upskilling of front line leadership in OHS. He enjoys development and execution of training as well as occasional writing. He lives with his wife and children in Perth, Western Australia and enjoys bushwalking.

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