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Navigating Cognitive Dissonance in the Workplace Through Cultural Lenses

Many years ago, I found myself in a challenging situation at work. My boss wanted me to fire a marketing manager on my team who was, in her opinion, not "up to par." This team member may not have been a superstar, but she was competent, open to feedback, and committed to improving. On the other hand, my boss was impactful and influential within the organization. In this scenario, my boss seemed more invested in demonstrating her authority than cultivating a nurturing work environment.

The dilemma put me in an agonizing position. On one hand, I strongly disagreed with her demand to fire an employee for no tangible reason. On the other, I had to maintain a professional demeanor and respect my boss's perspective, however skewed it may have been. The internal tension was a palpable example of cognitive dissonance—simultaneously holding two conflicting beliefs or attitudes.

The theory of Cognitive Dissonance was first coined by social psychologist Leon Festinger back in 1957, where he described the mental discomfort experienced by individuals who hold two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or perceptions simultaneously. An example would be someone who knows they need to lose weight for better health, yet they opt for donuts for breakfast. In an organization that stresses teamwork but has a reward system encouraging individual performance, employees often experience cognitive dissonance. This discomfort stems from the gap between the company's professed values and the actions that those values necessitate, much like my own experience with my boss's inconsistent demands.

According to psychology, there are a few general approaches to resolving cognitive dissonance:

  1. Change Your Belief: Modify one of the conflicting beliefs to align with your other belief or behavior.

  2. Change Your Behavior: Modify your behavior to align with your beliefs.

  3. Minimize Importance: Downplay the significance of the conflict, convincing yourself that the discrepancy isn’t as essential as it might seem.

  4. Seek Social Support: Sometimes, talking it out with trusted friends or advisors can help rationalize one’s perspective, reducing dissonance.

Reflecting on my experience, I’ve realized that cognitive dissonance can happen anywhere and anytime. Specifically, I am most curious about examining the differences between East and West cultures around the workplace and how they respond to the dissonance.

Western Individualism: A Different Approach

Western cultures are known to be heavily influenced by liberal and existential philosophies, prioritize individual freedoms and rights, and see the "self" as the ultimate unit of value. In a Western setting, the individual often takes the matter into their own hands and takes action to resolve cognitive dissonance. This might involve confronting the authority figure directly or even considering leaving the job for a more suitable environment.

While empowering, this approach can undermine team cohesion and lead to fragmented workplace cultures or loss of top talents, leading to a high organizational turnover rate.

Eastern Collectivism: A Lens to View Dissonance

The Eastern culture often places the collective outcome above individual desires. The company’s goal or the team’s KPI is above and seen as more important than any one person’s well-being. This belief is influenced by philosophies like Confucianism that stress harmony and familial devotion. In Eastern culture, the discomfort of cognitive dissonance is alleviated through group discussions or consultations with superiors to find a collective solution, like involving an entire team in the decision-making process. However, there are sometimes exceptions to the rule where collectivism is overridden by authorities, where rank rather than a team makes decisions. While this approach can build team cohesion, it may suppress individual voices and lead to conformist behaviors that are not always beneficial.

Navigating cognitive dissonance is a complex, multi-faceted endeavor that impacts our mental well-being and professional relationships. My personal journey and the contrasting cultural approaches demonstrate no one-size-fits-all solution. Understanding the nuances of how different cultures tackle this psychological challenge can provide us with a richer set of tools to handle cognitive dissonance and survive and thrive despite it.

Circling back to my personal experience, I chose to lean into what I believed to be right and refused to oblige to my boss’ demand. I ended up meticulously documenting the performance metrics of my marketing manager. This evidence-based approach closed any avenues my boss might have used to justify firing her. Eventually, not only did the marketing manager keep her job, but her tenure outlasted my boss at the company. However, the cognitive dissonance made an impact on my relationship with my boss, and the friction led to an atmosphere of distrust between us, and I ultimately left her team.


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