Ever say to yourself, “Wow, they don’t understand me at all!” That happens a lot in business, and often we ascribe negative attributes to someone who fits this description. We think: they’re not listening; they’re too busy talking; or they’re so full of themselves.
But failing to pay attention is not always because the other person is not listening or a jerk. Sometimes it’s because our brains are wired so differently than our teammates that the message we are delivering confuses them. Misunderstandings like this are termed “cognitive dissonance”. Remember Evan Baxter anchoring his first news spot in the movie “Bruce Almighty”? Cognitive dissonance can make an executive’s points just as unintelligible.
Cognitive dissonance negatively impacted a team of mine. During an evaluation of an acquisition our company was considering, the finance leader was so focused on the operational hurdles required to make the acquisition successful that he could not focus on the long-term strategic opportunity that I saw. In fairness to him, I had an equally difficult time processing his information. Unable to reconcile our different viewpoints, opinions were proposed and positions became entrenched, which hampered the entire team’s ability to determine the best strategy.
For decades, organizational behavior experts have known that people perceive and judge information differently. They found there are two ways humans perceive: sensing and intuition. Sensing individuals gather information from the environment. Intuitive individuals use their insight and deductive reasoning to gather and process information. And there are two ways humans judge the information we get: thinking and feeling. Thinking individuals use their logic. Feeling individuals base their decisions on personal and group values.
Every organization has sensing and intuitive, thinking and feeling individuals on their teams. Differences in their primary corporate role demand it. Finance people tend to be sensing; marketing folks rely on intuition. So, cognitive dissonance is unavoidable in today’s organization. When facing company-impacting challenges, any corporation needs both types of perceivers and judgers to participate in identifying the best solution. Bringing together this diverse of a group has been shown to produce better decisions. Unless cognitive dissonance gets in the way.
Since cognitive dissonance is first and foremost a misunderstanding of ideas, it significantly hampers team decisions. A sensing individual can look at a set of facts and reach a different conclusion than an intuitive person looking at the same facts. In my real-life example, the sensing executive defined the problem in immediate operational terms, while the intuitive executive defined the problem from a strategic perspective. This difference in thinking could mean a team cannot agree on a solution to the strategic issue. An impasse occurs.
As a result, cognitive dissonance and the misunderstandings created are not just bothersome; they can impact the health of the team. Thinkers tend to identify with other thinkers and feelers with other feelers. And when disagreements arise each side believes their side is so obviously correct that those who disagree are just being stubborn or obstructive. This perspective breeds frustration, suspicion and anger among the team, which only makes consensus building more difficult and the team less effective. Here are some ways to prevent cognitive dissonance from hurting your company’s growth prospects:
- A multidisciplinary team can make better decisions if each discipline is allowed to express their views. Be aware that your multidisciplinary teammates WILL think differently.
- Implement methods to bridge understanding among the team. Take the time to explain your position, using as simple terms as you can. Avoid acronyms. Permit questions until there are none. Promote equal participation among team members.
- For contentious issues, have a generalist write a description under the direction of the expert before distributing the summary to the team. The generalist’s description is more likely to be understood by all.
- Develop and use an easy-to-understand ranking system for the topic. This usually means developing 3 to 5 ranks, from poor to excellent. Write a simple enough definition for each rank that even the non-experts can understand and judge. Then tally how each team member ranks the idea. Airing the beliefs of all the team members helps to produce a more directed dialogue.
Taking these steps can help your team prevent misunderstandings that could undermine your business.