Deshun Deysel on Change and Dissonance

When change is introduced it often brings about immediate Cognitive Dissonance(CD).

Leon Festinger (an American Psychologist) proposed the theory of CD in 1957. It states that the existence of dissonance [or inconsistency], being psychologically uncomfortable, motivates a person to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance [or consistency]. When dissonance is present, a person will additionally actively avoid situations and information which would increase the dissonance. In other words, people who resist change are simply trying hard to hold onto their sanity. If they move away from the strongest idea of who they are, they become more and more psychologically uncomfortable.

Once a person’s identity – their idea of who they are and how they are  – is entrenched, they will fight tooth-and-nail to maintain the consistency of that identity. This explains why dictators or president-for-life figures like Robert Mugabe and Kim Yong Un will fight even their own citizens to stay in power. They need to stay sane – themselves – and avoid the tension that would arise from changing roles – and thus boundaries and identity.

This phenomenon translates to group culture in a similar way. Once a group has an entrenched culture or identity, it works hard to maintain “how things are around here”  – consistency. The dissonance created by someone making a suggestion to change the way things operate is often simply too much to bear. It creates cognitive dissonance, and the group will pull towards the cultural norm which is the strongest image of who they are. Teleology theory supports this, suggesting that we are goal-directed as people – moving towards the most dominant or entrenched idea about who we are. If one person in the group decides to do things differently, they will quickly be reminded of who and what they are in the group (social identity) and how difficult it would be for them to act any differently. We see examples of this dissonance in sports teams, or in mountaineering, where the opinions of certain individuals, as leaders, dominate and eclipse those of members of their team. This loss of “voice” could easily lead to disengagement and low morale.  This also explains why we can attribute certain ways of being to geographical groupings of people (even within the same culture or religious affiliation). A Zulu-speaking speaking person form Sandton will therefore be different to one in Pretoria or Soweto. Certain norms will be shared, but others will be bound to their environment.

The majority of the world’s population does not enjoy Cognitive Dissonance, and prefer to maintain the status quo. Dictators count on it. This is the reason why it’s so difficult to shift behavioural patterns in people. It requires a relentless, resilient and constant pursuit of positive change by those who wish to bring about the shift. In change management, then, our mission needs to include teaching people to voluntarily create Cognitive Dissonance for themselves, stimulating tension between the now and the not-yet. The more often this is triggered, the more likely that familiarity with change breeds, if you’ll excuse my English “content”.  Change is then not so frightening. Those who are able to do this well will become the pioneers of society.

Deshun Deysel is a professional speaker, leadership developer and high-altitude mountaineer. She has spent more than 20 years changing on the inside, to overcome serious obstacles on the Seven Summits and in business. She resides in Johannesburg with her husband Charles and their two children, Edward and Judith. We are grateful to be partners with them in a few significant joint-ventures.