When your brain is uncomfortable…


This week I’ve been thinking a lot about cognitive dissonance.

I mentioned it in a recent conversation and was asked what it means.

I did a just-adequate job of explaining that it’s the discomfort in your brain when you try to hold two conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or values at the same time.

But what I needed was a powerful example to illustrate my point, and caught in the moment, I couldn’t come up with one.

I had mentioned it as a way to know what you want in your career, and ever since the conversation I’ve been recalling times in my own journey when cognitive dissonance pointed the way forward.

Sometimes the dissonance persisted over a long stretch of time, and “resolution” seemed to require a never-ending series of small decisions. Work-life balance while I was raising my kids comes to mind.

Other times the discomfort was kind of a quiet itch, and only a change in my habits could make it go away. Like hating to clear my desk, but hating even more that every time I needed to spread out to do a project I had to clear my desk before I could begin.

But sometimes the discomfort could only be resolved by a big difficult decision, and some of those stand out in memory as shining moments – pivot points – in my career.

I think of those times when…

…the CFO tried to bully me down the most inexpensive path, when I knew the only way to do the right thing was going to require paying a bit more.

…I wanted to promote harmony, but to do so would have condoned an employee’s use of derogatory language (or robbed my boss of important and valuable feedback, or allowed a group of employees to be treated unfairly…)

…I wanted to stay in my job (aka “comfort zone”), but the signs were all telling me things were shifting and I was more likely to thrive if I faced the changes head on (yep, it happened more than once!).

Do you see the same theme I see as I look back at those pivotal moments? They all seem to be about courage, which happens to be one of my strongly held values.

That’s exactly the point I was making when I brought it up. If you want clarity on your true values, pay attention to what makes your brain uncomfortable.

How has cognitive dissonance played a role in your career journey? What’s making your brain uncomfortable today?

(Next time it comes up, I have my example ready! I’ll use smoking. Longing for your next cigarette when you’re aware of the impact on your health is a classic example of cognitive dissonance.)


Lorri Anderson

Lorri Anderson

Lorri Anderson is an expert consultant to businesses and a powerful coach to individuals. After a long and rich career as a strategic HR executive, she is driven to give back by changing the Human Experience in today’s workplaces, one business or human at a time.

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