Coaching and Cognitive Dissonance (Part I of II)

In 1954 social psychologist, Leon Festinger, and his associates came across newspaper reports surrounding a religious group whose members were preparing for the end of the world.  A woman from Chicago founded the group after she claimed to have received “messages from the planet Clarion.” These messages outlined the destruction of the world through a great flood that was to take place before dawn on December 21, 1954. The woman, later known as Sister Thedra, managed to garner the faith and support of a number of followers.
Convinced of their beliefs, the group made drastic preparations for the apocalyptic deluge. They gave away their possessions, left jobs and families, and gathered in preparation. According to the followers, because of their faith, a UFO would arrive at their gathering place at midnight, prior to the flood, and would grant them safe passage to the planet Clarion in time to escape the impending disaster.
The commitment of this group intrigued Festinger and his colleagues. And yet, they were even more fascinated by what might happen to the group’s commitment and zeal should the time for the cataclysm come and go without event.  According to Festinger, when the appointed time came and went, the group would be faced with cognitive dissonance—the discomfort of holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously.
In 1956 social psychologists Festinger, Riecken, and Schacther wrote a book exploring this story. The book, When Prophecy Fails, is a classic work in social psychology.  The book explores the concept of Cognitive Dissonance.  The theory of dissonance has since become an important element of both feedback and coaching today.
When midnight, the appointed hour, came without the arrival of a UFO and a flood, rather than disbanding because prophesy failed, the group instead increased their faithful proselyting efforts. Their convictions actually became stronger.  According to the group, because they had “spread so much light, God had saved the world from destruction.”
In what Festinger refers to as a “disconfirmation of belief,” a conflict was created between the perceived reality in the minds of this group, and the actual events that transpired.  They eliminated the cognitive dissonance by discounting the events that took place—rather, the events that did NOT take place—and shifted “reality.”
The topic here is not one of religious views or beliefs.  It is about how groups and individuals are wired to resolve cognitive dissonance by either changing their perceptions of reality or changing their reality in the face of discord between the two. When confronted with dissonance, the natural desire of both individuals and organizations is to attempt to resolve that dissonance.  We all have a tendency to believe the world is as we see it—that our view is correct.  When confronted with evidence to the contrary, we seek to reduce dissonance by justifying, blaming, or denying, among other things.
Dissonance forces us to move from the current state, whether through changed behavior, or change in beliefs.  Because of this, dissonance becomes a powerful motivator for change. Without dissonance, long-term change is unlikely. Dissonance is both a cause of change and an impediment to change. As such, leadership coaches both impact dissonance (through feedback we cause dissonance to occur) and are impacted by dissonance (the resolution of dissonance may further encourage the behavior). As coaches, we must be constantly aware of the impact of dissonance on an individual’s desire and ability to change.
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