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cognitive dissonance

I thought I’d publish an amended version of a recent essay that I submitted for my MBA. This essay was written for ‘Managing Contemporary Organisations’ and covers two scholarly themes: Edgar Schein’s model of organisational culture; and Leon Festinger’s concept of ‘cognitive dissonance’, the troubled psychological state that a person finds themselves in when they are being torn between two competing cognitions.

The lecturer’s requirement was a ‘first person’ account that responded to the following question:

Describe and analyse a personal experience of ‘cognitive dissonance’ at work, where your own values and/or perceptions seemed to be in tension with what the organisation expected of you.



Hi Clayton

It appears that you are out all day attending a conference. Who is managing your area in the event that we have project issues?

Thanks Darren

Seemingly innocuous when read in isolation, this email represented the straw that broke the camel’s back.  It had been building up for some time, but now I was incredulous.  A string of incidents, all initiated or tacitly endorsed by Darren (not his real name), had preceded this email – I had been subject to, or had witnessed, sustained micro-management and marginalisation of staff; dictatorial and controlling behaviours; stonewalling of our internal customers; denigration of key vendors; amateurish resource planning that resulted in people unnecessarily having to work weekends; a lack of genuine empathy and care for our staff; rampant gossiping; petty alliance-building; the avoidance of responsibility; taking credit for others’ work; and martyr-like behaviour, among other things.  This was the last straw and marked the beginning of the end for me as an employee at the organisation. After a short tenure of 8 months, I decided to move on.

In December 2014, I had chosen to leave the best job that I have done in my career to date. I had been the National Digital Manager for Defence Force Recruiting and was highly respected for the leadership that I had shown in that role.  Despite being firmly ensconced in that job, I had chosen to challenge myself. I had decided to accept an offer to join the new organisation, with the express intention of broadening my horizons in a new industry, having spent many years of my career in the Defence sector.  An ‘irrevocable decision’ in Festinger’s view (Festinger, p.95), the change generated a degree of anxiety in my mind: Is this the right decision? Why am I leaving a great job that provides me with an excellent salary, the opportunity to travel and national responsibilities?

The dissonance was fleeting – I felt sure, at the time, that I had made the right decision. Darren, a twenty-year veteran of the organisation, had interviewed me on three separate occasions, I had struck up a good rapport with him, and he had painted an enticing picture of my new role and its possibilities. I had also been captivated by a series of videos featuring the organisation’s Managing Director in which he outlined the organisation’s values and the impressive array of programs and initiatives that the organisation undertook to enliven those values. I had studied the ‘espoused and documented values, norms, ideologies, charters, and philosophies’ (Schein, p. 112) and the story was compelling.

The organisation promotes itself as a paragon of virtue when it comes to ‘people’; it is a mutual organisation owned by its members, and it exists solely for the benefit of members; as an employer it prides itself on its modern human resource practices of flexible working arrangements and professional development of its staff; and as a corporate citizen it devotes significant resources to charities and community-based initiatives. This publicly-visible organisational persona – the elements of organisational culture that Schein calls ‘observable artefacts’ and ‘values’ (Schein, p.111) – appealed to me, because it aligned with my own managerial philosophy: that people, at their core, are trustworthy, motivated, hard-working and self-disciplined, and a manager’s role is to empower and to provide a supportive environment that enables them to bring out their very best.


But the reality did not match the public persona, at least not in my new division, where the prevailing sub-culture seemed to be completely at odds with the organisation’s stated values. The deeper, underlying ‘assumptions that determine perceptions, thought processes, feelings and behaviour’ (Schein, p.112) were far removed from the stated ideals of the organisation.


After a short time at the organisation, I became unsettled. My mind was troubled by two competing cognitions:

  1. The organisation promotes itself in the marketplace as a leader in its dealings with ‘people’; it trumpets the fact that it puts its members, communities and staff first.  People are the organisation’s raison d’etre.
  2. The managers in my division operate a process-driven, centrally-controlled, authoritarian/paternalistic model of management; staff are treated like functionaries, not as human beings; morale, cohesion, motivation and, consequently, performance is low; external stakeholders actively avoid dealing with the division due to its dysfunction and its tendency to spurn engagement.

How could I reconcile these two divergent pieces of information? As a highly principled person, I was having great difficulty. I started sleeping poorly; I was irritable, anxious and disengaged a lot of the time. My body and mind were telling me that this was not right. This was the physical manifestation of the cognitive dissonance (Festinger) that I had been experiencing.

There were further sources of dissonance. Darren had recruited me, but then had offered little in the way of induction or ongoing support. I was on my own, expected to find my way in an unfamiliar industry without so much as a friendly mentoring chat over a coffee from time to time. Why would he recruit me and then not talk to me? Why doesn’t he see it as his responsibility to set me up for success?  If I were to fail, would it not be a reflection on him as the person who recruited me?  

More broadly I was starting to question some of the organisation’s practices. Why are technicians with no formal management skills or qualifications employed in senior managerial roles? Why does length of tenure align with ‘rank’? Why had a manager, who had been counselled previously for his poor performance, been given so much power and authority over others?  Why does the wider organisation seem completely oblivious to the real problems in this division? The problems are apparent, so why does the business simply accept them and not intervene in some way?


When Darren’s email arrived, I had been walking down to Adelaide Oval to attend a conference. The email arrived on my smartphone and instantly I started to seethe. I was so incensed that I briefly contemplated punching a stone wall in Bank Street (but thought better of it). I knew at that moment that the cultural changes needed in the division were insurmountable and that I would leave the organisation without having made any worthwhile contribution – and I was disappointed by that realisation.

How dare he question me in this way? The subject line reads: ‘Who is managing your area today?’  Heck, why beat around the bush – why not just spell out exactly what you think: ‘How come you’ve been negligent in your managerial responsibilities and decided to toss everything else aside and attend a cushy conference for the day whilst the rest of us focus on the important things?’

It appears that you are out all day, he observes.  Yes, that does appear to be the case, Darren, and I’m very sorry, because clearly I’m too inexperienced and stupid to make a decision by myself to leave the office, and my staff are so incompetent and directionless that they cannot possibly do any productive work without having somebody look over their shoulder and tell them what to do for a whole eight-hour stretch.

Read in isolation the email’s content doesn’t justify such rage, but the cumulative effect of all the little things – the terse emails; the hostile body language; the frivolous process tasks – had done the trick.  The day at the conference was a write-off as much of the time was spent in my own little world, brooding and working out how I should respond.  

It was clear to me that it was time to pipe up and to say something. I had bottled up my feelings up for some time, choosing instead to toe the party line and fall into step behind those who ran the division.  I had justified this position by telling myself that I was only new to the organisation; that I was learning the ropes in a new industry; and that the degree of trust bestowed upon this type of organisation by customers justifies a stricter level of control and oversight. Festinger would argue that dissonance impels a person to either change his opinions or his behaviour, in the same way that hunger impels a person to eat (Festinger p.93).  By choosing to acquiesce to the prevailing conditions in the division, I was attempting to make a dissonance-reducing change to my opinions, in order to breach the gap between my expectations and reality. I was attempting to convince myself that the ‘unattractive features of the chosen alternative were not all that unattractive’ (Festinger, p.95).

It became harder to suppress my true feelings when a pointed comment by Darren was made at a ‘balanced scorecard’ planning session involving the division’s managers. We had been discussing recruitment and retention and Darren had said: ‘We’ve had difficulty with recruitment and retention because we can never find people that fit the culture’. I raised my eyebrows, but stayed silent – the comment was directed at me, but I found it to be an absurd suggestion that highlighted Darren’s single-mindedness and irrationality. Did he really believe that the new staff were at fault and that the culture was not? How did he account for the fact that my position had been held by three different individuals in the space of a year, and that my predecessors had opted out of the organisation?

The culture – or more precisely the sub-culture – within the division was to blame.  Culture ‘eats strategy for breakfast’ as Peter Drucker famously noted, bemoaning the disproportionate time spent formulating strategy, when culture is a more critical contributor to organisational success.  The culture in the division was deeply flawed and was in urgent need of attention. My summary of the prevailing culture in the division, through the lense of Schein’s definition of culture (Schein, p.111), is as follows:

  • Culture is a pattern of basic assumptions. The sub-culture in the division was predicated on a belief that the division is the ‘engine room’ of the organisation and that its managers were ultimately responsible for its brand capital, consumer trust, financial performance, security, privacy and fraud prevention.  There was a belief that the wider ‘business’ had little understanding of the enormity of this task or the weight of this responsibility. Accordingly a tightly controlled, top-down, risk-averse, process-driven managerial style was deemed necessary to keep the organisation running and to avert disaster.
  • Culture is invented, discovered, or developed by a given group. The sub-culture in the division had been developed over time by a cadre of long-serving staff, some of whom are no longer with the organisation but whom continue to be represented by ‘disciples’ within the division. The majority of these staff had only ever worked for a single employer; they stick to tried and tested modus operandi; and had little understanding or interest in contemporary management practices or market forces. Complicating the culture was the fact that the division is made up of staff from two merged organisations that had come together in an uneasy marriage in 2011.
  • Culture is developed by a group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration. The division’s managers had little respect for the rest of the business, believing that the business took the division for granted. Over time, the division had adopted an ‘us versus them’ mindset towards its internal customers and its vendors; all interactions with external stakeholders were guarded and distrusting; most initiatives proposed by the wider business were met with disdain by divisional managers and work was undertaken reluctantly; as a consequence, the wider business perceived the division to be obstructionist and it was to be avoided whenever possible.
  • The culture has worked well enough to be considered valid. Whilst it was clearly deeply flawed, most managers in the division believed that the cultural model worked. Darren, himself, was fiercely defensive of the model and strongly believed that the division provided an outstanding service to the business. A major merger and acquisition project had recently been achieved on time and on budget, and this was cited as justification that the division ‘gets things done’, despite the fact that the project caused untold human fallout. The M&A was a pet-project of the Managing Director and, in his eyes, the division was successful under Darren’s steerage, and he was feted for his role. This is a self-perpetuating cycle, in which the ends always justify the means and the ‘sacred cows’ (Schein, p.117) are placed on a pedestal that justifies their ongoing employment. It also helps perpetuate the myth that employee longevity in an organisation is proof of the organisation’s strong ‘people’ focus, when in fact it is often counter-productive, serving to institutionalise antiquated practices and mindsets.
  • The culture is taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems. The culture was not formally taught in the division but the expectation was that new members were to assimilate, and assimilate quickly. Those who failed to assimilate quickly were browbeaten or marginalised. From the start of my tenure, I was encouraged to adopt the norms and exhibit the same behaviours as the other managers in the division – to adopt an adversarial approach to stakeholders; to keep vendors at arm’s length; and to treat staff like functionaries. When I did not, I was cast aside, ignored, excluded and derided.


With the arrival of Darren’s email on my smartphone, I decided that I couldn’t stay silent anymore.  I decided to craft an email response that evening. That email is copied below:



I’ve spent much of today feeling troubled about your email below and I’ve decided that it’s time for me to let you know what I am thinking and feeling.

I’ve bitten my tongue on a couple of occasions, but now feel compelled to say something, because the passive-aggressive behaviour and, in some cases, open hostility seems to be growing towards myself, and some of my staff.

Your email below is an example of this.  I’ll be honest – this email made me absolutely livid.

I was instructed to attend the conference by the Executive General Manager and to get an understanding of the collective challenges that our industry is facing.

The tone of your email suggests that I made my own decision to be out of the office today.  You ask who is responsible for the team in my absence, when you know very well that Tony (not his real name) is there and that the entire team is being managed as part of the M&A effort.  You suggest that nobody else in the team is capable of doing anything without oversight. You suggest that my absence affects the M&A effort (when it does not) and you are attempting to guilt me into believing that I should be back in the office.  You suggest that everybody should be solely focused on the M&A work, when the reality is that the world keeps turning and that there are other activities that need to be attended to.

Your email is just one example of this marginalising behaviour.  There have been plenty of other examples in recent weeks: tasking people through single-word emails; tasking people indirectly through cc: emails; failure to provide adequate support and guidance to those who are unfamiliar with systems/processes; hostile body language when crossing paths in the corridor; pointed suggestions in meetings that people are ‘not working as a team’ or ‘not pulling their weight’; cc:ing others on emails that are critical of individuals.

I do not respond to this type of management – in fact, 99% of people do not.

And I am not the only one.  I can reliably tell you that your actions – and the actions of several others – in the division are impacting dangerously on morale.

Yes, I understand that you have a job to do and that ‘the M&A is the organisation’s most pressing priority’, but this sort of management style represents the biggest risk to the successful completion of this project.  I, for one, am questioning why I am at the organisation and I know that quite a few others are in the same position.

You made an interesting observation in our HR workshop the other day – you said that the division has had difficulty hiring and keeping staff because ‘they don’t fit into our culture’.  Can I suggest that the culture is a large part of the problem, not the new employees?

Happy to talk about it, but things need to change.


To Darren’s credit, he read the email shortly after I sent it that evening and invited me to a face-to-face meeting first thing the next morning to discuss my concerns. The meeting was cordial and there was some contrition, but there was no detailed exploration of the issues that I had mentioned in my email.  After a tokenistic meeting with the division’s staff to ‘pat them on the back’ for their hard work, Darren and his acolytes quickly returned to their tried and tested modus operandi of ruling by decree. As Schein would argue: it is ‘possible for a group to reach consensus on the level of values and behaviour and yet develop serious conflict later because there was no consensus on critical underlying assumptions’ (Schein, p.112). Our detente was short lived because the deeper issues weren’t tackled in any meaningful way.

Despite attempts to socialise me into the culture, I now decided that I totally rejected all of the underlying assumptions of the culture in the division – it was time for rebellion (Schein, p.116). I made the conscious decision to change my actions, to be true to my principles, and to do the job that I believed would generate the most value for the organisation as a whole.  That meant actively engaging with stakeholders outside of the division; adopting a ‘solutions orientation’ in all interactions with internal customers; fostering close relationships with vendors; interacting with all staff members in the division, including those outside of my team; and actively ‘welfaring’ those who had been on the receiving end of the authoritarian behaviour.  Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a new wave of scorn from Darren and his supporters who suggested on more than one occasion that ‘I was not working as a team’, that I was ‘making promises to the business that I couldn’t keep’, and that I was being overly familiar with vendors.

But my internal dissonance had subsided, because I was doing what I perceived to be the right thing and I knew that my actions were making positive inroads. People from outside of my team were confiding in me about their mismanagement and poor treatment; I was receiving positive comments about my leadership from internal customers in our annual employee survey (whilst Darren and supporters were being lambasted); and our vendor relationships and communication channels had improved.

That said, the fundamental, underlying cultural assumptions of the division were still there. I came to the conclusion that no amount of work on my part would fix them and no-one else in the division was capable of doing so, at least in the short term.  To change the culture, a revolution was required, and that was fraught with danger because ‘just as individuals do not easily give up the elements of their identity or their defence mechanisms, so groups do not easily give up some of their basic underlying assumptions merely because external events or new members disconfirm them’ (Schein, p.116). Like a red wine stain in a white carpet, I sensed that no amount of scrubbing would remove the last vestiges of the ‘old’ culture and the division would remain tainted for some time to come.  

My final act of dissonance-reduction was the decision to resign from the organisation. I had found a new role that excited me, but I was also very disappointed that I hadn’t been able to make a better fist of my time at the organisation. I am, by nature, self-critical and the dissonance returned: Did I contribute to the problem? Could I have done things differently to bring about an alternative outcome? Am I running from a problem that I should be attempting to fix?  

Shortly after announcing my resignation, I received an email from Darren:



Sorry to hear as I thought there was light at the end of the tunnel. I hope your new role is better suited to you

Good luck


And with that curt email my lingering dissonance all but disappeared. I knew that my short time at the organisation would be consigned to history, stored away deep in my memory banks as a useful life lesson, but nothing more.



Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific American, 207/4, Oct., pp.93-102

Schein, E.H. (1990). Organisational culture. American Psychologist, Feb., pp.109-119

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