Senior executives often need conviction. They need to be confident and believe in what they say. Ironically, the more they say something, the more they believe it, and the more confident they become. Over time, being in a senior executive role can simply make them more confident to the point that if they are challenged, they might react with even more conviction, which in turn, might be experienced as hostility or aggression. The inevitable consequence is that other people will stop questioning and challenging senior executives. CEOs often complain that no one tells them the truth, is that because everyone is avoiding the dissonance? Confident leaders with a strong sense of conviction provide a sense of security. It is often difficult for leaders with such conviction to suddenly become curious and open to learning.
A natural response to accumulating successes is replication – copy/pasting the solutions that worked in the past to new situations. Because the stakes are high, and the responsibility of executive roles is so great, successful leaders tend to avoid experimenting with new ideas. Their beliefs about what has created success become hardwired as universal formula that can be applied anywhere. After all, most senior executives are hired because of their experiences and what they have learnt from their success, and the role encourages them to play it safe, to replicate past (successful) experiences. While shareholders might appreciate the reliability and responsibility this demonstrates, a lack of experimentation will, by definition, limit learning.
Most senior executives hide behind the image of their professional roles to avoid showing their more human and vulnerable sides. They become locked in a role, which constrains and guides their behavior. Status symbols remind them that they have a special role, so they feel the need to hang on to a kind of “tough” persona that guides them in the role. Such a persona causes them to refrain from showing their other sides – the more human side, for example, or the more curious side, or the more playful side. They believe that showing these other sides will make them feel vulnerable or exposed. However, allowing oneself to be vulnerable is to open oneself to new perspectives, to learning and to change.
These four learning disabilities are underpinned by what Anna Freud originally described 80 years ago as “human defense mechanisms.” They include familiar and socially acceptable defenses such as humor, suppression and rationalization, but they may also be underpinned by more aggressive defenses such as displacement (passing discomfort on to less powerful people) and projection. Projection involves believing that other people possess our more undesirable qualities, such as laziness, untrustworthiness or incompetence, and in so doing we deny our own laziness, untrustworthiness or incompetence. All these defenses serve the purpose of getting rid of our dissonance, and make us feel better about ourselves.
The ripples of dissonance
Dissonance can also be a powerful tool for creating change in teams and organizations. While most textbooks suggest that effective leaders create clarity and alignment, the opposite is also true. Effective leaders can also stimulate dissonance in others by creating confusion, anxiety and surprise. Sometimes the best teachers are those who do not give answers, but who provoke a reaction with uncomfortable questions. This forces people to lean into their own dissonance to learn and change. Of course, there is always the risk that they will project their discomfort back onto their leaders and accuse them of being confused, denying their own confusion and missing out on an opportunity to learn and change.
When Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, refused to use delivery vans as a way of promoting the brand in the 1980s, she created surprise and confusion among employees and customers alike. Instead of a catchy Body Shop slogan, she put the following message on the vans: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” There was initial bemusement as customers and employees discussed the slogan, either saying “she’s missing a great branding opportunity” (projection–incompetence) or exploring their confusion. They eventually understood a different purpose, and became loyal to a brand that would become one of the first in the world to take up and demand social responsibility. The CSR message was consistent with no testing on animals, for which the brand became famous, and helped to create an enormous following and loyalty from employees and consumers alike. It can even be argued that this action, and others like it, launched the entire corporate social responsibility movement.
Let us not take dissonance too far. Alignment is essential for execution. Leaders are expected to create clarity and reduce dissonance. But occasionally creating dissonance for others can lead to powerful change. It’s a question of how much dissonance other people can absorb, and how many projections leaders can hold before others explore their own dissonance.
In a fast-changing, dynamic and technology-driven world, leaders will experience dissonance. They will be taken by surprise more often, be confused more often, and become more anxious. As responsibility increases, they will be tempted to get rid of the discomfort of surprise, confusion and anxiety rather than stay with it, and will explore it and learn. The more they explore the dissonance within themselves and their organizations, the more intentional they can be in using that dissonance to learn and change. By doing so, a learning executive can:
- Develop negative capability and lean into dissonance to learn and develop self-awareness.
- Develop a balance between learning and performance, feeding both a desire to grow and the need to feel accomplished.
- Take on a container role, managing and holding others’ emotions in times of uncertainty, ambiguity and change to achieve a broader purpose.
- Make sense of “self in role” and understand how our lives as executives influence us and how we can intentionally influence within our role.