Cognitive Dissonance

Here’s a fancy phrase for you: Cognitive Dissonance. If you are like me, you could have gone a lifetime without hearing that phrase, unless, like me, you listen to podcasts. I am pretty sure that is where I heard it. At any rate, let’s start with a definition or two, from my trusty Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Cognitive adj: of, relating to, or being conscious mental activity (as thinking, remembering, learning, or using language)

Dissonance n: discord.

So, put these two definitions together and you have a discord relating to, or with, a mental activity. Kind of like writing a blog about HR… In a real-world context, Cognitive Dissonance is where we continue to do something that we know is wrong. The knowing is the cognitive part of the equation. The dissonance comes when we do it anyway because we don’t want to admit that we are wrong. If you are confused, don’t feel bad, I kind of am too, so bear with me a little bit more.

Have you ever worked somewhere that you just didn’t think was a good use of your talent? Perhaps you were in a job where you weren’t happy, but you kept at it because, well, it was easier than doing something else.

My first job out of college I was a manager for a now-defunct auto parts chain. It wasn’t a bad job, it just wasn’t the right job for me. I knew a lot of people in the same or similar positions as me who had made great careers in this field. They were happy and thriving. I also saw people who had been doing it for a while who started around the same age as me and thought it was “ok”, that it paid the bills, and that frankly getting up every day and going to work was easier than looking to make a change to something that they liked. It was easier than taking the risk, so they didn’t; they had gone off and gotten complacent, and it showed. I recognized this and decided I didn’t want to be like that, and I did start looking at other options, though it was hard work! So I didn’t get in a hurry. Then God gave me a wonderful gift – he caused the company to pull out of the Houston market pushing me to go and try something else. Does this mean that had that storied retailer remained in the Houston market you would not be reading this blog? I don’t think so. I was taking steps to change the situation, but I was also complacent.  

This, my friends, is Cognitive Dissonance. I was in a job, a career, that I wasn’t happy in. I knew I was unhappy, and I knew that I needed to make a change, but, just like those old-timers, I was letting myself get sucked in. Did I know that I would be happy in HR? Nope. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to work in HR. Truth be told the only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to manage an auto parts store – again, not that there is anything wrong with that. It just wasn’t for me.

How about you? Are you in a situation that you are not happy with, that you know you are not happy with, but also are doing nothing about it? Are you rationalizing, telling yourself “it is a good job, especially in this market, so I need to stick with it.” My experience has been the longer you stick with something, the harder it is to break free. Start making that change now – see what happens.

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