Workplace anxieties: Cognitive dissonance

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Photo by Marlon Trottmann on

A friend recently suggested that I write some posts on workplace anxieties, citing some of his own work experiences as traumatic. I realised that his experiences were not uncommon, because hey, how many of us can actually say we have found the perfect workplace for ourselves?

Let’s start with one big problem that many of us face at the workplace – cognitive dissonance. What is that? It happens when you experience a mental conflict because your beliefs do not align with your behaviour. In other words, there is an incongruence between what you believe in and what you are doing.

For example, if you have a belief that you should do good to people, but your job requires you to do some form of harm to people, then you would most probably experience a state of unease or discomfort. That state of tension is your cognitive dissonance. The example I have given is a clearly demarcated black and white example. Most times, however, people would experience a situation they would term more as a grey area.

Different people deal with cognitive dissonance differently.

  1. Some would deny their cognitive dissonance and carry on their job as per normal, justifying their actions with reasons they deem as valid. Such as “It is not my fault because I was forced to do it” or “I have no choice because I need the money to support my family”. (This is incongruence.)
  2. Others, who are unable to compromise their deeply held beliefs, would try to speak up for what they deem as right. But in the process, they risk their jobs, reputation, and sometimes their lives. (This is congruence.)
  3. Some acknowledge their cognitive dissonance, but are more cautious about risking what is important them. They will find ways around the difficult situations to ensure they can still practise what they believe in. (This is congruence.)

Regardless of which of the above options you choose, there is undeniably stress involved. Worry, guilt and/or shame will somehow be present. And in such situations, you would need to weigh the benefits and costs of choosing congruence. It is not easy.

My whole point of writing the above, really, is to put a label on cognitive dissonance for you. It can come in other words. Like, “I am experiencing a clash of values”, “I hate that I don’t practise what I preach”, or simply “I don’t know who I am anymore”.

Hopefully, this term can start you off on achieving a state of congruence that you can sit comfortably with. And when that clarity happens for you, perhaps you would be better able to manage the negative emotions that come with cognitive dissonance.

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