Dealing with Dissonance

As human beings, we get very uncomfortable when our internal beliefs don’t match up with our external reality. When what we believe and what we see or do or experience don’t align, we consciously or unconsciously yearn to reconcile the discrepancy.   There are several possible paths we might take to alleviate this cognitive dissonance and restore the harmony between our inner and outer world:

1. We might overhaul what we believe to better align with the reality that we see. This strategy is very rarely used by us humans. Even when we see and experience a reality that disproves our beliefs, we’re very unlikely to throw in the towel on our beliefs and update them accordingly.   This brings us to the most commonly used strategy…


2. We dismiss contradictory information and seek out confirming evidence. We really like this strategy. It makes us feel comfortable and safe and validated.  We tend to trivialize facts that contradict our beliefs (“it’s a lucky fluke, an exception to the rule”) and cherry-pick facts to substantiate what we believe (“see here…x, y, z, proves that I’m right”).


3. We can remain steadfast in our beliefs AND work diligently to create a new reality. We believe so deeply and passionately about something that we consciously and intentionally set a course to create a new reality that reflects what we believe. This is exactly what Roger Bannister did. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he believed that it was humanly possible to run a 4-minute mile.  And on May 6, 1954, he ran the mile in 3 minutes and 58 seconds.  His commitment to his belief liberated him from the self-limiting and self-fulfilling prophecy of the old belief and he created a new reality, a new standard in the world of running.

This got me thinking about the current ascendance of Purpose in the business world.

Historically, the prevailing belief about business is that its fundamental Purpose is to make money—and that’s fairly consistent with how it feels to work in most corporate environments.   You tell me we’re about making money and every day I walk in the door and am held accountable to sales goals, market share, profit margins, comp store sales, stock performance, etc.   No cognitive dissonance there.

But what happens when Conscious Capitalism comes along to challenge the reigning belief system — replacing it with a new belief system declaring that the Purpose of a business is to have a clearly defined, higher order Purpose beyond making money?   How is an employee supposed to reconcile that idea or belief about business with a reality that may not appear to be in sync just yet?    How do you deal with the dissonance?

Here’s what you can expect to see and some tips on how to deal with it:

1. When there is too much dissonance between what a company says and what it does, the Purpose is very likely to be rejected by the organizational body.    Employees will either contest it outright or slowly kill it through neglect; creating a sense of congruence by returning to the de facto profit-driven Purpose.   One company I recently worked with had a Purpose that people believed was a noble and worthwhile Purpose—they found it exciting and motivating—but  employees were held accountable for metrics that were in many ways diametrically opposed to the Purpose.  As one person said, “I’d love to be a part of that Purpose but to work towards that here would come at the detriment of my career or possibly my termination. Let’s be honest-our  real Purpose is to make as much money as humanly possible.”

Here’s the deal:   Actions speak louder than words.  If you want to reconcile the dissonance between your Purpose and your reality – be very explicit about the actions the company is willing to take to become a more purpose-driven company.

2. When a company says they have a higher Purpose and a good amount of their daily activities reflect that Purpose, employees will look for confirming evidence to validate the Purpose and may dismiss information that calls it into question.   For a time, this tendency is healthy insofar as it builds confidence in the validity of the Purpose and enables some positive Purpose momentum to be built.  Great. Coming out of the gate, you want people to feel justified in their pride and excitement.  You don’t want the wet blanket of a brutal reality check dousing the flame you’re trying to create.   This is actually a helpful instinct to get Purpose off the ground in an organization.

Here’s the deal:    Embrace and celebrate the evidence of your Purpose in Action to get the Purpose flywheel going.   Dissonance will certainly emerge and it will need to be addressed but don’t let it be a buzzkill right out of the gate.   Establish legitimate momentum based on the good that the company is doing in order to create true believers with the will and determination to (in time) tackle the contradictions in what a company says and what it does.

3. When a company has a higher Purpose that people deeply believe in (irrespective of the organization’s current state)– employees can doggedly pursue the creation of a new reality.   Employees might say, ‘I deeply believe in this Purpose and although the reality doesn’t fully align with it now, I believe we can create a new reality to fulfill the promise of our Purpose.’ Belief is one of the most powerful forces for creating your reality.  It’s why Placebo treatments work just as effectively as real treatments.   It’s why kids who are told they have a high IQ (even when they’re perfectly average), perform better than their higher-IQ peers.    The things we believe shape our reality.

Here’s the deal:    If you genuinely believe in your Purpose—and you’re willing to confront the brutal facts and pay the price to succeed – you can create a new reality.   But you need true believers.   There has to be deep and genuine buy-in of the Purpose in order for it take root in a way that will produce extraordinary results.

So as you think about embedding Purpose in your organization remember:

>Don’t give-up on your Purpose when faced with some internal dissonance.

>Get the Purpose flywheel going by collecting and celebrating evidence of the Purpose in Action.

>Harness the power of the true believers to create a new reality – using the power of your Purpose to show the world what’s actually possible.