I’m bugged by beliefs.

Range of filters, some overlapping.Just occasionally we all come across situations in the training room that leave us scratching our heads and wondering what just happened.

This happened to me recently while running a management development programme and was stopped during the break by one of the participants who said:

“Thanks for the session so far. It’s been brilliant and I love what you have been saying but I am leaving now.”

“Why?” said I.

“Because you have confirmed everything I thought I already new about management and so don’t need to take up any more time learning what I already know.”

“What is it that you already know?” I asked.

“That management is just about telling people what to do and telling them off if they don’t do it.”

As I’m sure you will be happy to hear, this was nothing like the content we had covered. I was so shocked that, by the time I had recovered my composure, the person had gone.

What had just happened?

I was to get the answer a few days later when discussing it with a colleague.

“Ah”

They said knowingly

“Cognitive dissonance.”

“What?!”

They explained that one consequence of cognitive dissonance…

“… is where two beliefs are so contradictory, the mind simply deletes the most inconvenient one. In this case, your learner was getting some fairly radical new information about what management is all about and while they may have believed what you were saying, they just couldn’t find a way to align it with their existing beliefs. So they deleted you and left before it started to hurt.”

Now I have to say that when I started to write this post Ally and I discussed this and Ally quite rightly pointed out that this was a “pretty narrow interpretation of Cognitive Dissonance” but I think it’s still worth sharing and I’ve since found other examples.

This is probably the most radical.

camera filter held up to an image of a tree, changing it's colourDuring the troubles in Northern Ireland a group of nationalists firmly believed that the local hospital was full of dead and injured British soldiers following a raid by some of their colleagues. When it was pointed out that there had been no reports of an attack they simply laughed at the reporter’s naivety and said

“Exactly.”

In their world the lack of any press coverage confirmed their belief in an institutional conspiracy.

In my learners case, the fact that I hadn’t reinforced their belief meant that it was sooo obvious to everyone what the proper style of management was, I didn’t need to reinforce it.

And if you are now saying “Hang on Paul, that’s a bit of a leap – at least a huge assumption.”

You would be right.

Except that I subsequently went back to the individual as part of an ongoing coaching assignment and checked.

And this was exactly what had happened.

And that’s the thing about beliefs. We constantly seek out things to confirm them and this makes them stronger. But when we find something that doesn’t fit, we ignore it and when we can’t ignore it, we  re-write what is  right in front of us so it fits.

Changing someones beliefs is a challenge that the best coaches have mastered.

In the training room we have other things that take our attention.

And there are some interesting ramifications for change managers about cognitive dissonance as well. For example:

  • How do you make change sticky when all your hard work is being deleted all over the place?

I haven’t yet found an answer to my own question “What would I do differently next time?”

So if you have ever been faced with a situation like this and resolved it or if you have some thoughts about what I could have done, please share. It’s starting to bug me.

photographic filter image by P^2
tree through colour filter image by slimmer jimmer
blinkered horse image by Alex E. Proimos
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One Comment

  1. Posted May 2, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for that – an interesting read. Placed in that position again my suggestion would be to Thank the person and say “You know what – this happened once before and the person that left later realised it was Cognitive Dissonance. Can I explain it to you – it will only take 2 minutes & then you’ll know for future reference, & it may help you in other areas of your life too.”

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