Posted 11th October 2019
The title of this article is in fact a quote from Theodor Adorno, a German philosopher and psychologist who studied German responsibility for the Holocaust. In this article, we will explore this same idea from a different angle. Here “ambiguity” will refer to “the fact of something having more than one possible meaning and therefore possibly causing confusion”.
When colleagues describe a co-worker as inconsistent, they mean that this person is exhibiting contradictory behaviours such as being quiet but having a lot to say or being an expert in a field but missing the obvious solution for a specific problem.
Human beings don’t like complexity or inconsistencies. We have learned to break down complex information into simple and clear portions in order to make sense of our surroundings. The mental effort required to hold 2 or 3 contradictory beliefs is something that humans struggle with. This mental discomfort is called cognitive dissonance.
Imagine discovering that dutiful Tracey, a diligent accountant has forgotten to send invoices for the last 3 months or that bragging Bill, the best salesperson in the company has started an internal blog to help develop emotional intelligence within the company.
Our natural inclination is to resolve these contradictions in order to restore our internal peace. So, we can either:
a/ Reject surprising behaviour as it doesn’t fit with our existing beliefs or
b/ Add unexpected behaviour as new information
Let’s focus on the first coping mechanism – rejection. We can’t accept that “dutiful Tracey” forgot to send invoices for three months in a row as it conflicts with our established belief about Tracey as “the diligent accountant”. So we find another explanation which corroborates our existing view; “Tracey sent the invoices but they went straight to junk” or “The client gave this excuse to avoid paying these invoices”.
When someone displays an unexpected reaction or behaviour that is not congruent with the image we have of this person, the image we built shatters. We then start to feel vulnerable and insecure as to how others may view our judgments.
This blind loyalty to our existing beliefs is often combined by the hunt for other people sharing the same beliefs and the avoidance of beliefs that may contradict our own. Therefore, to escape the threat of losing face and being seen as a poor judge of character by our colleagues, we can use others to impose our views as the only truth.
Our craving for recognition from others and the threat to our self-belief could lead us to impose our view on others.
But is becoming authoritative the only defense mechanism possible to reduce the psychological stress induced by cognitive dissonance?
The other way to resolve these inconsistencies is to “Add unexpected behaviour as new information”. The mental ability to perceive alternative possibilities to explain human behaviour is called cognitive flexibility.
In this case, we can accept that Tracey can be at the same time diligent and forgetful and that Bill can be bragging as well as showing high emotional intelligence. Stress caused by cognitive dissonance is reduced by the production of alternative solutions to difficult situations. Tracey’s mistake could be explained by an external cause (she was planning to send the invoice biannually rather than monthly) or her mother has been ill. Bill can show a different facet of his personality after a bad sales meeting.
Those who have a high tolerance for other people’s inconsistencies do not see these contradictions as a threat to their self-belief. They don’t think that their colleagues will see them as weak or inconsistent as a result of accepting their co-workers unexpected behaviour. On the contrary, they often describe their own discrepancies as a strength; a power to adjust their behaviour to different situations. For example, a leader can claim to be at the same time strong and vulnerable, proud and humble, willing to help and to step back.
So, to expand on Adorno’s conclusion, intolerance of ambiguity could be a sign of an authoritarian personality but this cognitive rigidity is not static. Furthermore, anybody can learn to be more flexible in their thinking and learn how to integrate and accept contradictions in others and themselves.
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