There’s a curious phenomenon in social psychology, one well-illustrated by the experience of mentalists — magicians who appear on stage a create the illusion of clairvoyance. If you have ever seen one of these masters work, they are very convincing. Their illusion is made all the more powerful by a healthy dose of gullibility — or determination to stay gullible — in the audience. The illusion is often so compelling that even in the cases of mentalists’ who reveal their methods and the fakery of their spectacle, members of the audience still believe that the telepathic illusion is real. Some mentalists have been so morally disturbed by the audience’s flat refusal to believe the truth that they have changed careers.
You may be wondering how people can be so stubborn and –excuse my bluntness–stupid — as to believe someone is telepathic even after having been shown the microphones, shills, and the method of calculated guessing employed to fake it. But it’s more common than you might imagine. This refusal to see the truth that is not only obviously true, but that has even been confirmed by masses of evidence is called cognitive dissonance reduction. It’s a complicated term for something that is a very human trait. When we have a particular worldview and are presented with evidence that contradicts it, we will often ignore the evidence of our own eyes, ears and brains in order to avoid disrupting our worldview. And much of the time, this is at play despite our honest belief that we are behaving rationally.
Frequently, if we find ourselves explaining away phenomena that violate some aspect of our self-image, we are employing a version of the same mechanism. For example, when a salesman explains his poor closing rate to his manager by blaming the industry, the prospective customers, the marketplace or something else, he is indulging in a certain amount of dissonance reduction. In these cases, a salesman avoids looking at his own performance weaknesses or poor work habits, or abrasive personality by blaming external conditions. He may do this even though there is clear evidence that his peers are succeeding with all the same conditions. Perpetuating this myth allows him to save face and maintain a certain view of himself as successful and skilled. When we see our employees or associates doing this it can be frustrating. And more importantly, as managers we know that using these excuses or forms of self-delusion to avoid seeing the truth is a business problem. Failing performers deny themselves the opportunity to get better trained, learn new skills or develop better habits when they won’t face the reality of their failing results. That’s why so much of sales management and early sales training relies on brutal approaches to foisting shame on lost sales and slamming the hackneyed excuses that haunt all sales managers.
But there is another side to the self-delusion coin. If a failing salesman is completely conscious and present to his low closing rate, and doesn’t indulge in any dissonant reduction, it may cause him to second-guess himself in the moment when it most counts. Self-doubt or lack of confidence in the middle of a sales presentation, or when the client is considering backing out of a deal can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is how bad weeks become bad months and bad quarters. In sales and sports culture, this is viewed with a certain amount of superstition — a losing streak is mystical and inevitable. But in truth, it’s predictable. As confidence falls so do results. So it’s important for a competitive hurdler (say) to stand on the starting blocks with a sense of strength and certitude about his ability to win the race. To doubt or self-analyze — even a second at that moment — can cost in performance.
What does all of this mean? It tells us that there is an important balance that we need as leaders, to pull the rug on cognitive dissonance when it is disempowering and self-protective. But it also tells us that we have to imbue a sense of confidence and cultivate a culture of preparation and trust as we ask our teams to develop, market, sell, or deliver our products and services. Balance. Such a simple solution and such a challenging reality. But just being aware of this double-edged sword is a tool. Keeping that knowledge and the understanding of how all of us fool ourselves moment by moment can make a significant difference in how we understand ourselves and each other. It sheds a different light on the seemingly over-confident, failing junior sales rep — and illuminates the senior executive who can’t seem to get out of his own way this month. Each scenario demands a different leadership and management style. And approaching each one differently and aptly is, well, it’s balance.