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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