Tribe Culture Change | Cognitive dissonance: your powerful motivator
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13 Dec Cognitive dissonance: your powerful motivator

“Do you want to get hurt while you are at work?”
“No, of course not!”

I’ve asked thousands of people this very question at hundreds of workshops and always get this same response. It’s why achieving a safe workplace is so easy; we all want the same outcome!

Of course it isn’t that simple. People might not want to have an accident, but they do want all the other perceived benefits that taking a short-cut or working unsafely can deliver: saving time, being more comfortable, fitting in with everyone else or getting recognition from the boss for having the best output results.

Most of these benefits are going to deliver more quickly and are fairly certain whereas the downside – having that accident, probably won’t happen anyway. The well debated accident triangle illustrates nicely that most of the time when we work unsafely we get away with it.

Frayed rope

Yet how do people reconcile their unsafe behaviour with the original desire to stay safe? These two conflicting thoughts give rise to an uncomfortable tension within their minds. This is known as cognitive dissonance and can be a very powerful motivator.

The degree of dissonance varies but will increase as the difference between the two thoughts gets greater; for example, as the risk from unsafe behaviour increases. Because people aren’t comfortable with the tension between these conflicting thoughts it’s natural for them to try and reduce the dissonance. They do this in a number of ways:

  • They change their behaviour (work safely)
  • They justify (unsafe) behaviour by changing their thoughts about our safety – “actually, I don’t care if I get hurt” – unlikely, but may occur in some extreme situations
  • They justify their behaviour by adding in new thoughts or beliefs – “it’s not really dangerous”, “I’m only doing it this once”, “everyone else does it this way”. Problem solved and dissonance overcome.

It’s remarkable what lengths people will go to in order to delude themselves that everything in the garden is rosy, when quite clearly it isn’t. Just think about all the arguments that people come up with about killing themselves slowly by smoking; or all the justifications for putting themselves, their families and those around them at outrageous levels of risk when driving dangerously.

When you tell someone how stupid they are to behave that way, another dissonance is set up. But this time, because it’s about their self-image it’s even more powerful. Hence the need to argue back and defend their position, or at least greatly resent the person who’s created the dissonance by pointing out the foolishness of their behaviour.

This is why you need to think carefully about how you handle unsafe behaviour and why change is much more likely to occur if the recognition of a need to change comes from within the person themselves.

If you increase personal recognition that people really could get hurt by picturing the accident occurring then you’re much more likely to achieve a change in behaviour.

Nick Wharton
Nick Wharton
nick.wharton@tribecc.com