I will raveling this week and fear I will miss my Thursday morning post. I am posting now as a backup plan. I have a talk coming up on October 14 if anyone is around.
When dissonance increases to a certain level, something will have to give.
Block it out
Shift the load somewhere else (either internally or externally)
Make room for it by degrading other things you are doing
Avoid and protect yourself from it
Adapt to it (though this has limits, of course)
Recontextualize or reframe it
If leaving is an option, you may leave (a version of #4)
Dissonance impacts people in different ways. Some people can’t shake even a small amount of dissonance—it follows them home and haunts them. Other people are incredibly good at compartmentalizing and shifting the load. The healthy response is one of graceful degradation—we seek equilibrium through a combination of the coping mechanisms above.
One interesting implication here is that it happens to everyone. The CEO of the company is not immune. While they, in theory, are exposed to more dissonance, they do what anyone does when they hit their limit: block, shift, degrade, adapt, reframe, or leave. Though likely more practiced at compartmentalizing, they also have a limit.
Another implication is that as the dissonance gets “spread out,” it becomes harder and harder to conceptualize or make sense of it. Take this example:
A person (A) keeps asking their manager (B) for a much-needed tool. The manager hits their limit and shifts the load to a purchasing manager (C), who they know will not reply. C has adapted to protect themselves from directly saying No.
A eventually resigns themself to not getting the tool and lets their work degrade. C knows they didn’t approve the tool but successfully reframes the issue as one of “tightening the purse strings during a downturn.” This shifts some burden to C’s manager (D). D promises that the issue will be resolved during the next budgeting cycle (shifting the load to the budgeting cycle).
A hits another limit—they aren’t proud of their work anymore—and finds another job. This then puts newfound pressure on B, who reframes the whole thing as a “well, A wasn’t a team player!” The person B hires next is less likely to complain about tools.
Each actor in the system is seeking equilibrium (and avoiding dissonance) and is gracefully degrading. But can anyone quantify all of that lost energy? Sure, A left. But imagine things like this happening every day! And suppose everyone is blocking, shifting, degrading, adapting, reframing, or leaving. Micro-degradation after micro-degradation; some As hit a limit, but many other Bs, Cs, and Ds end up with more manageable loads.
Dissonance diffusion on a grand scale, Es through Zs and beyond—front-line to CEO.
This is all to say that you can have a company of reasonably happy and well-adjusted equilibrium-seeking people and a lot of debt to deal with that doesn’t seem all that pressing. At least to any one person in the system. No one will complain that loudly. The dissonance is spread out and diffused in people, machines, systems, agreements, processes, work, “the product,” etc. No person can see or feel it; otherwise, they’d implode and leave immediately.
This truth brings us to:
Any “transformation” or change effort will almost always involve releasing these gasses. The dissonance is packed into the sediment or permafrost. It needs to get released. You may not see it. No one may see it. But it is there.
Great post John, extremely thought provoking.
I was wondering, in your opinion what are the methods, tactics or approaches you recommend that product delivery and leadership team members can take to identify the dissonance spread across multiple layers?
Thank you in advance.
Great post and interesting perspective! The example scenarios are also very recognizable.