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The uncomfortable realities of cognitive dissonance (and how it really doesn't help in a pandemic)

A deep dive into cognitive dissonance, and what we can do as leaders to get our companies through this pandemic...

Well. Holy sh*t. What a year huh? As much as I would like to find the fast forward, or maybe even the rewind button, unfortunately there ain’t such a thing (or is there? Read this - ok ok, another blog). So, in the current context of entering another month of restrictions, of nationwide testing, of closed borders, but above all of “uncertainty”… Instead of drowning in despair, I wanted to use this crazy time as an opportunity for analysis and reflection. In particular, to try and understand the possible reasons as to why we weren’t better prepared; what we are learning in the process; how we can adapt.... Oh, and what I, as not only the founder of technology company but also a human being, hope to achieve for the future (with of course, a nice sprinkling of psychology).

Of late, I find myself being reminded of a Ted Talk I watched a few years ago by Bill Gates in the shadows of the Ebola breakout. A talk in which he powerfully illustrated the risk of a global pandemic, and the subsequent repercussions if one were to occur. Gates went as far as to visually model what a large-scale flu pandemic would look like while explaining what it would mean for not just the economy, but for the world in general. Above all, he reiterated the fact we simply “are not ready.” I watched it, I agreed with it, so I read more books about it, books that discussed the largest potential threats to the economy and humanity (perfect bedtime reading, I know): financial crisis, global pandemic, lack of resources, climate change, meteorites…you get the drift. But despite Bill Gates (one of the world’s most influential figures in tech and philanthropy) pertinently telling us that a global pandemic could cost the global economy three trillion dollars and destroy the lives of many, despite the ongoing awareness of climate change and lack of resources, despite the numerous books, press, presentations and activities in these areas, we still somehow shrugged it off. It was simply too uncomfortable for us to process, so we refused to believe it would happen because not only did it evoke a strong sense of uncertainty, for many, it simply didn’t align with their belief structure. Introducing: cognitive dissonance. 

Cognitive dissonance, as defined by Festinger (1962)* occurs when a person holds contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, and typically experience as psychological stress when they participate in an actions that go against one or more of them. (AKA, a global pandemic is never going to happen, our economy is strong, we are prepared). According to this theory, when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other (a pandemic has happened, our economy is struggling, we weren’t prepared), people do all in their power to change their beliefs, ideas, or values until they become consistent... This can also occur (and often does), despite being given access to information, threats and precautions, as we have pertinently witnessed here, sorry Bill.

So what does this mean for us? Well, indeed cognitive dissonance is fascinating phenomenon, and one for which I believe is why some people refuse to follow the rules (wear masks etc.). However, it can be extremely dangerous if people (or states, cough Trump) refuse to become aware of it. When people refuse to accept or awaken to their cognitive dissonance, they are more likely to undertake actions that ease their psychological stress (DENIAL ALERT). Do you know a smoker that understands smoking causes cancer? Do you hear them say things like, “yes I smoke, but if I stop, I will gain so much weight and that is much more dangerous for my health than the occasional cigarette" so they continue? In the current context this can be translated to, “yes, I know we are in a global pandemic and significant economic uncertainty, but I still won’t put in place budget restrictions or a hiring freeze, because I don’t think it is as bad as the media makes out and that will harm my company even more if I do so.” Oh hey there cognitive dissonance !

But the uncomfortable land of cognitive dissonance is often the last thing that is needed in times of significant risk and uncertainty, and us as leaders need to (arguably more than ever before) get a serious realignment of priorities, face our potential cognitive dissonance in the headlights and accept that sometimes we have to change our belief structures. It is the acknowledging, accepting and changing (Dr Phil alert, I apologise) of behaviour that is critical in getting through this pandemic (and any hard situation really). In response, I wanted to take a little personal trip into what we have done in our company, highlighting both what we initially believed, how we have adapted, and what we hope it will mean in the future.

Previous belief: “Working from home will destroy our company culture”

Yep... that was me for many, many years. “We are not a remote work culture, for people to flourish at Tada, they need to be together, in person.” And to be honest, this first belief structure was really only modified, initially at least, out of obligation. You see, overnight, we simply could not be in the office, and... if I am honest, initially I was terrified! I was sure our culture would suffer dramatically, but we learnt to adapt and adapt quickly. The setup of our remote infrastructure was much easier than I feared. We initiated virtual “Friday drinks”, our company wide, internal video streaming platform is excellent, we ensured people used “video” on calls, we had “guess the desk” and “guess the baby photo” challenges each day. We kept connected more, adapted even more and guess what? Our culture lives on! By accepting and adapting (albeit, by force to make the first move) we feel like we are entering the future stronger. Why? We currently have offices in London and Paris, and soon to be Ottawa. If we had not learnt to adapt and adjust to doing things in a more remote manner, the connection between our global offices would have been a much sharper learning curve.

Previous belief: “It is impossible to plan and roll out solid strategy in times of uncertainty”

I get it, uncertainty sucks and we humans are definitely not front row fans. But with good reason! You see uncertainty is hardwired within our brains to overestimate threats and underestimate our ability to handle them—all in the name of survival. (Think about our ancestors on the plains of Africa, if our brains said “dude, that ferocious looking, giant kitty cat that just jumped out a bush in front me, is way slower than me, not to worry – I don’t think there would be as many humans on the planet right now). Increased uncertainty results directly increased stress responses in the brain. Global pandemics are indeed excellent induces of uncertainty, and humans tend to get enveloped by it, without believing certainties can emerge from uncertainties. Rolling out solid strategy in times of uncertainty is not just possible, it’s a necessity.

For us, it has been about breaking down things into two buckets - “what we can control” and “what we can’t control.” Anything we can control we jump on it, leverage it and strategise around it. For example, we have recently rolled out a new work structure, shipping out the old hierarchical speed bumps, with an excellent squad focused mentality. After months of humming and haring, as whether such a thing could be rolled out remotely, we took the plunge. We knew it needed to happen, so we did it. We decided that we just needed to adapt our approach, look at what was stressing us about (turning on the cognitive dissonance detector) and shifting out mentality from “big organisation changes can only be made in person” to “big organisation changes can be made remotely.” The roll out was much smoother than we could have ever imagined, our teams got excitingly swept out into a new wave (probably not the best metaphor in current context) of exciting change and we, as a company, learnt that as long as we communicated well, kept everything on the same page and genuinely spent time to listen to people, even big new strategies can be brought about in the midst of uncertainty. 

Previous belief: “If we reduce spending, our growth and productivity will stop”

I remember the exact moment I read the Sequoia Capital announcement.... The “Dear Portfolio CEO’s - prepare for the worst.” I was particularly vigilant of this, because the last time they did such a thing was in 2008, right before the financial crisis, in a memo entitled “RIP - Good Times.” You see, Sequoia Capital, founded in 1972, is among the world’s most successful venture capital firms in the world, having stakes in Google, Linkedin? Youtube, Zoom and Github.... When they say “holy shit” you say “holy shit.” The March letter was clear, albeit worrisome, but above all - necessary. An alerting message to CEO’s - “brace for the worst.” Sequoia essentially warned: “business activity will drop, supply chains will be disrupted and travel will become a nightmare” in response, advocating for leadership to “get contingency planning on financial runway, expect the worst for fundraising, prepare for deals to fall through, raise the bar for ROI for marketing spends, raise productivity (without necessarily raising headcount) and above all REDUCE capital spending. 

As a Founder, it is these terrifying signals one must be open to receiving, above all very open to accepting, rather than denying. These messages are created to immediately shake every last drip of cognitive dissonance from one’s system. Either you do it, or you die. But I get it, as a growth stage company, everything is about growth. The mentality is “if I increase my capital spend (assuming one has significant and realistic product market fit), my company will grow.” Therefore, the belief structure surrounding that is “if I do not invest in growth, my company will not grow.” Well, in theory yes, but sometimes we must be more clear on the definition of “growth,” well, from my point of view anyway. For me growth is expanding and “getting bigger” but I worked to adapt my belief structure that in fact maybe is wasn’t just that.  Maybe “growth also means - not dying.” So even if things have to slow down for a while, and maybe lead one to feel they aren’t growing, they aren’t dying, so arguably, they are still growing. It was this change in mentality that has got us through so far, the immediate hiring freezes, the reductions in spending, the attempts to elongate (as much as possible) our financial runway. So that’s what we did. So what happened? Well, it’s safe to say we are still very much alive, and still very much growing. But the exercise taught us the importance of what really matters, how productivity can continue despite hiring delays. That sometimes we need to stop, look around us and make the best out of what we have. We have learnt not all critical meetings need to involve extensive travel, that just because someone has been in a certain role for a long time, doesn’t mean they can't achieve other goals. We have learnt more than ever before the power of our incredible team, but more so the power of communication, understanding and choosing to move forward together in the same boat.  Now, I am not saying we are out of the woods yet, quite the contrary, I believe the next 18 months will be critical for business’ globally. However, thanks to our early awareness, acceptance, adaption and preparedness we are not in a much more solid position to weather out the storm in that continues to rage in front of us. If we refused to believe the warnings, we might not be in the same position. 

So to sum up, in the face of a global pandemic full of economic and social uncertainty, it is now more than ever before that we open up and truly understand our belief structures, why they exist and evaluate if they are valid in the current context. Cognitive dissonance feeds-off of uncertainty, creating significant psychological stress that can often lead us to manage situations badly. Accepting that our ideas, strategies or current way of doing business can change is the first step. If we continue to hold onto pre-existing beliefs that are not conducive to context, we will make bad business decisions, pure and simple. This is not a time to be making bad decisions. I know it’s hard, I have had many of my core values and belief structures rattled in this process, but the outcomes are far more rewarding that holding onto a belief only because I have always held onto that belief. Open your eyes, understand what you can and cannot control, build strategy in the face of uncertainty and never forget if you adapt, there will always be a solution.  Peace out.

*Festinger, L. (1962). "Cognitive dissonance". Scientific American. 207 (4): 93–107. Bibcode:1962SciAm.207d..93F. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1062-93. PMID13892642.

(a very un-academic ) reference section




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