On the Cognitive Dissonance of Modern Leadership in Traditional Organizations

To have devel­oped a coher­ent mod­ern lead­er­ship atti­tude is one thing. How­ev­er, to endure the ten­sion between this aspi­ra­tion and the sober­ing real­i­ty of every­day lead­er­ship in most­ly more tra­di­tion­al struc­tures is some­thing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. In many cas­es, this ten­sion, known from social psy­chol­o­gy as cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, can only be resolved by sac­ri­fic­ing one’s own aspi­ra­tions. But there are also oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties than will­ing­ly sub­mit­ting to one’s fate.

A few years ago, a CIO explained to me in a con­ver­sa­tion some­what casu­al­ly that he was also only a mid­dle man­ag­er. Maybe that was just his jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for not being able to act fur­ther in the mat­ter pre­sent­ed to him — it was about sup­port for the dis­sem­i­na­tion of Work­ing Out Loud in the com­pa­ny. How­ev­er, this remark also shows a lit­tle bit the ten­sion between aspi­ra­tion and real­i­ty in which many man­agers today find themselves.

On the one hand, they have found a suit­able lead­er­ship atti­tude for them­selves or are active­ly work­ing on it (e.g. with the Man­i­festo for Human Lead­er­ship and the one or oth­er work­shop for­mat for it) and strive to lead their area of respon­si­bil­i­ty accord­ing­ly. On the oth­er hand, they are almost always — like the CIO men­tioned at the begin­ning — some­how only mid­dle man­agers, in so far as they are embed­ded in less mod­ern or at least dif­fer­ent­ly influ­enced struc­tures and process­es and in so far as they inter­act with dif­fer­ent­ly social­ized peo­ple. In many cas­es, in the drea­ry every­day life of the com­pa­ny, this will then feel as the Ger­man econ­o­mist Knut Ble­ich­er so sober­ly describes it:

We work in struc­tures of yes­ter­day with meth­ods of today on strate­gies for tomor­row main­ly with peo­ple who have cre­at­ed the struc­tures of yes­ter­day and who will not expe­ri­ence the day after tomor­row in the company.

Knut Ble­ich­er

In 1957, the Amer­i­can social psy­chol­o­gist Leon Feistinger coined the term “cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance” to describe this unpleas­ant incon­sis­ten­cy between aspi­ra­tion and real­i­ty. Cog­ni­tions are men­tal events that are asso­ci­at­ed with an eval­u­a­tion. Con­flicts can arise between these per­cep­tions, thoughts, opin­ions, atti­tudes, desires or inten­tions that we find so unpleas­ant that we have to resolve them some­how. Like the fox in the famous fable of Aesop, who does not want to admit to him­self that he can­not reach the grapes and there­fore claims that they are sour any­way and there­fore he does not want to reach them at all.

Ten­sions between aspi­ra­tion and real­i­ty arise for mod­ern lead­er­ship in two direc­tions. On the one hand, between the atti­tude of a gar­den­er who pro­vides the frame­work for the devel­op­ment of human poten­tial and the often dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed demands of the orga­ni­za­tion, for which good lead­er­ship means first and fore­most keep­ing a firm grip on his busi­ness like a chess mas­ter. On the oth­er hand, not all employ­ees are imme­di­ate­ly will­ing and able to accept the new­ly won free­dom and the respon­si­bil­i­ty that comes with it and to deal with it con­struc­tive­ly, so that the gar­den often pro­duces more weeds than fruit in the begin­ning, much to the dis­may of the gardener.

Most peo­ple do not real­ly want free­dom because free­dom means accep­tance of respon­si­bil­i­ty, most peo­ple trem­ble at such acceptance.

Sig­mund Freud

The sit­u­a­tion is fur­ther com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that both areas of ten­sion rein­force each oth­er. The first dis­ap­point­ment about employ­ees who don’t fol­low through as expect­ed is fol­lowed by the mock­ery of oth­er man­agers and final­ly an appeal from the boss to put his own busi­ness back in order. This cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance is dif­fi­cult to bear and it is not uncom­mon for ambi­tious man­agers to then give in to their fate and lead peo­ple as they seem to need to be led and as they are expect­ed to lead.

But cor­rect­ing one’s own aspi­ra­tions and ulti­mate­ly bend­ing one­self is only one way to mit­i­gate this dis­so­nance and cer­tain­ly not the most ful­fill­ing and healthy one. A bet­ter alter­na­tive for reduc­ing dis­so­nance is the addi­tion of new con­so­nant cog­ni­tions also known als selec­tive expo­sure (cf. Wikipedia). Although the con­crete expe­ri­ence in every­day man­age­r­i­al life may ini­tial­ly be dis­ap­point­ing and frus­trat­ing, it is not always and every­where. But these rays of hope are eas­i­ly buried under the avalanche of all the things that do not work as hoped. Rec­og­niz­ing these, con­scious­ly high­light­ing them and cel­e­brat­ing them helps immense­ly. And from time to time it is also worth look­ing over the fence of one’s own orga­ni­za­tion into the gar­den of oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and lead­ers, either through per­son­al exchange or at least by read­ing rel­e­vant lit­er­a­ture (high­ly rec­om­mend­ed in this con­text: Rein­vent­ing Orga­ni­za­tions by Fred­er­ic Laloux).

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