Why practising cognitive dissonance will make you a better leader

Being able to deal with failure requires balancing realism and optimism. As does good decision making.

by Katarina Skoberne
Last Updated: 01 Oct 2015

When I was packing the contents of my offices into plastic bags after the demise of my company following the 2008 financial crash, the formidable Cindy Gallop told me a story. It was about a CEO who’d said one of his most formative experiences had been as a prisoner of war. He’d realised that to survive he had to hold two opposing concepts in mind: 'Things have never been worse' and 'One day things will be better'.

Not long before that, I’d gone through my own duality of emotion, between the awareness there was a high probability that my venture wouldn’t survive and wanting to do absolutely everything I could to save it. This was a change from the absolute persistence I’d known before, a determination that refused to see other options and would charge forth through anything at any cost. Once in the vortex of the crisis I was no less determined, but I was also mentally preparing for a possible negative result.

This enabled me to act more rationally and less like a gambler looking to recover my losses. The latter is a compulsion entrepreneurs – and humans in general - can be inclined to, be it borne of pure ego and pride, an instilled belief that a no surrender attitude is honorable, or a simple neurological process that gets hooked on risk and the endorphins it generates.

On the flipside, taking fear out of the equation changes everything, You only realise how fear-driven decisions were when the fear subsides, once know you can survive or you feel ‘the worst’ is over.

In a crisis we are inevitably forced to balance opposing notions, success and failure – or arguably we are not of sound mind. Research shows that in crisis situations, it is not the compulsive optimists that survive best and longest - they are eventually disheartened when the positive outcome they count on doesn’t arrive soon enough – it is the realists, the ones whose optimism is less blinding, who are the most resilient.

Failure changes everything. You start a business not knowing just how much you can do, and, if it fails, you come out knowing your strength. You start out cocky, or even arrogant, of the ’failure is not an option’ school of thought, and you come out humble. You start determined to persist whatever the circumstances, and come out having heard the business bell toll. You come out knowing you are resilient enough to survive, and that your resilience does not consist of the determination and persistence you thought it did.

The body and mind can usually muster more reserve than we could ever have imagined – but only if, when faced with a negative situation, we are able to lose the blindly optimistic driving mindset. That same drive is the one that would have propelled us forward, the almost default starting point for an enthusiastic young entrepreneur or executive. It can be a robust mindset, but it is not necessarily resilient. It may not break easily, but when it does, it will have difficulty bouncing back.

The key to resilience, in my experience, lies in holding two opposing mindsets. After my business failed and I’d lost everything material, a challenging period followed. But I continued to draw strength from balancing opposing emotions, and the reality of the present with thoughts of the future. Kipling’s famous poem If sums it up:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master,
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same.

It’s not a coincidence that it’s the most-quoted piece of writing by people who’ve survived adversity. Crises mean balancing opposing mindsets is a necessity. But that duality can be practiced.

An artist unites technique and emotion, a doctor expertise and empathy, a designer form and function, a businessperson growth and profitability. We all balance caution and audacity, data-driven and gut decisions, in our daily lives and as professionals. Counterintuitively, this doesn’t actually mean blending the two in a compromise. But if we are to execute anything successfully, then both need to be held closely, like two poles of a magnet that haven’t quite clicked, but are close enough to engage.

There are many examples, but the fundamental principle is simple. And as with many of the simplest answers, it comes down to discipline of mind to apply it successfully.

The practice of this kind of cognitive dissonance is what can bring out resilient traits before - or preferably without - the fall. And this resilience is the key to bouncing back from both daily challenges and bigger setbacks all leaders inevitably experience.

If you’ve trained yourself to ‘meet triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same’, you will be better able to face challenges, knowing in advance that you can master them. There will be less downtime and more courage. You will be able to assess options more realistically, without needing to blind yourself with optimism bias to shield yourself from fear. You will be able to take a risk knowing you will survive. You will take decisions knowing what you can bounce back from – which is always a little more than you think. And with better decision-making, comes better leadership.

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