#92 Three Cups of Dissonance

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with my Dad and he asked me how I develop my ideas for the blog. I told him that I really didn't know how I did it, but that I would generally hear or read something and a part of it would jump out at me as being either something I agreed with that I didn't feel people were paying enough attention to, or there would be something that didn't add up to me - something I couldn't Orient to. When I brought that up to a colleague of mine he defined the process as cognitive dissonance. Not exactly sure what he meant, I looked it up. Cognitive dissonance is described as "The uncomfortable feeling which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time." I found a better explanation here:


"Dissonance increases with:
  • The importance of the subject to us.
  • How strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict.
  • Our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict.

Dissonance is often strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief. If I believe I am good but do something bad, then the discomfort I feel as a result is cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator which will often lead us to change one or other of the conflicting belief or action. The discomfort often feels like a tension between the two opposing thoughts. To release the tension we can take one of three actions:

  • Change our behavior.
  • Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.
  • Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.

Dissonance is most powerful when it is about our self-image. Feelings of foolishness, immorality and so on (including internal projections during decision-making) are dissonance in action.

If an action has been completed and cannot be undone, then the after-the-fact dissonance compels us to change our beliefs. If beliefs are moved, then the dissonance appears during decision-making, forcing us to take actions we would not have taken before.

Cognitive dissonance appears in virtually all evaluations and decisions and is the central mechanism by which we experience new differences in the world. When we see other people behave differently to our images of them, when we hold any conflicting thoughts, we experience dissonance.

Dissonance increases with the importance and impact of the decision, along with the difficulty of reversing it. Discomfort about making the wrong choice of car is bigger than when choosing a lamp."

In the past, and with regard to the conversations going on throughout the Army, I have called those who experience and then use this discordant feeling as the 'loyal opposition'. Those people whose Orientation is such that they critically evaluate every word to ensure understanding and then learn to listen to the inner clamoring when some parts of it do not add up to them. I believe that the development of this skill set is critical to any leader development program. We must continually push people to learn how to listen for the discordant sound, figure out why it sounds that way to them, and then provide methods to settle the discord through dialogue, discussion, or decision that will increase their awareness and depth of judgment. This is also why I continually return to the idea of Orientation. I must understand me well enough to understand how all those things that make me unique come together in order for me to form my understanding of my world. Only by having a clear understanding of them, can I use that awareness to then take calculated pauses and search out the Orientation of others. In essence, my awareness of me causes me to recognize that everyone else has there own awareness and there exists the possibility the two don't match up. This creates multiple possible outcomes to any situation. The job of any leader is to ensure that (1) the subordinate has a clear understanding of the desired outcome from the leaders orientation, and (2) the leader has an awareness of dissonance, expects it, does not view it as disrespect or a challenge to authority, and can use it to ensure a common operating picture for his/her subordinates. Dissonance will play a critical part in many of the current discussions we are having regarding the future needs and requirements of the Army. And as the most combat experienced Army of the last 40 years, that dissonance must not only be expressed by those at the top of the hierarchy. There will have to be a concerted effort to search out those in the middle and at the bottom. Remember, there are a lot more Specialists and Sergeants in the Army than there are Colonels and Generals and Command Sergeants Major. The dissonance at those intermediate levels will be crucial to formulating the road ahead.

Over on the Army information sharing site, BCKS, there are a few conversations going on that have caught my eye lately and deserve a little bit more consideration. The first has to do with the review of the Army's professional ethic. This conversation grew out of General Dempsey's "Weak signals" ideas from a few weeks back. We have a need in the Army to take a look at our professional ethic. What does it mean to be termed 'the profession of arms'? What makes us a profession? What service do we provide and how and to whom? What gives us permission to decide we are 'professionals'? These questions are important because they form the contractual relationship between the institution and the nation.

The second has to do with the idea of mission command and the difference between it and command and control. As I brought up last week, the Army has published a new training pamphlet and has decided to refocus it's efforts at developing a better understanding of how we need to operate in order to solve the complex problems that we are faced with. The idea that the more structured and rigid command and control methods of the past, which are highly successful against more formalized and structured foes, have not been as effective against the more amorphous and amoebic enemy that we have faced in the past 10 years. That pamphlet also emphasizes the art of command over the science of control, which will be a huge behavioral change for many leaders who grew up in a different era in the Army.

And finally, there is a professional reading forum that is discussing "Black Hearts". In essence, using a moderator, the forum is going through the book one chapter at a time and the moderator posts questions and solicits feedback from others to see what thoughts and ideas are generated. He and I have spoken about this - and I suspect we will talk a lot more in the weeks ahead- but for now, I am just sitting on the sidelines watching the discussions unfold. It will be interesting to see as the weeks go on how many different interpretations of people's actions and decisions (including mine) show up.

How are these things related?

First, there must be the realization that cognitive dissonance equals personal Orientation. That each individual Orients to their world and forms their understanding in a unique and personal manner. This Orientation is the sum total of their lives, their experiences, their knowledge, and their ability to make sense of their environment in light of all of their previous knowledge and experiences. This is critically important. If I am in charge of something and make a decision, that decision is very much informed and influenced by by previous experiences and development. It is unique to me and colored by everything that is me. Therefore, it is also true that my subordinates posses their own Orientation and cannot see the world or problem in exactly the same manner as I do. My decision or the action I wish them to take is being filtered by the sum total of their lives and experiences.

If we accept this filtering mechanism as a constant, then the discussion of the professional ethic becomes incredibly important. We must continually revisit the ethic of the organization to ensure that we can express it to our members in such a manner that they can Orient to. It must be universal. We must push as hard as we can to ensure that everyone's understanding of the institutional value system is in line - or at least within a set of parameters. Without that common understanding, the unique peculiarities of individual Orientation will collide and could produce results outside of the ethic of the profession. I believe that the "Black Hearts" discussion and the unfolding events in 5th brigade, 2nd Infantry Division will be instructive in this manner.

Finally, the idea of mission command over command and control. Command and control is a semi-rigid system that uses the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) to generate orders. It is a complicated and difficult staff process that ends up most times with execution and synchronization matrices that put everything into a production line type order. The process continually breaks down the problem into smaller and smaller chunks and then stacks all those small chunks into a particular sequence to provide an expected result. It is very effective when opposing someone who uses roughly the same process - generally another professional Army or enemy. Something with a structure to oppose. Mission command on the other hand will be wholly dependent on the ability of the leader to paint a much broader picture, a mosaic, that describes in more general terms the intended outcome and allows maximum freedom of execution at every subordinate level. All the way down to the individual Soldier. It will be much less rigid and therefore (to use the most overused word in the Army today) more adaptable. Instead of proscribing each and every step of every Soldier and unit, mission command keeps the entire organization focused on the ultimate endstate. To put it another way, while command and control focuses on the trees, mission command focuses on not losing sight of the forest. COL Boyd expressed it like this:

"A system whose secret lies in what's unstated or not communicated to one another (in an explicit sense) - in order to exploit lower level initiative yet realize higher level intent, thereby diminish friction and compress time, hence gain both quickness and security."

In order to be successful at mission command, the Army will have to do a number of things up front. First, it will have to define it's ethic clearly in order to produce a common Orientation within its members. Second, it will have to accept dissonance as a vital part of the dialogue. Every aspect of leader development should be taught in light of an understanding that your subordinates cannot and will not Orient to their world in the same manner you do and that one of your key responsibilities is to ensure that the common understanding is achieved. Third, it will accept and learn to look for those times and places where a particular Orientation has moved outside of the intent and is adaptable enough to intercede earlier than it currently does. Finally, any discussion of decentralization must be informed by all of the above. Central to that discussion will be trust. And what are we trusting? Ultimately I believe that we are trusting that the institution can hear and respond to the cognitive dissonance among its' members, develop a method of dialogue that can reduce it through a commonly held ethic, and enhance the trust that allows for mission command over command and control.

A final very small example of how this all plays out. We had a brand new Soldier on a rifle range the other day who told one of my instructors that he had never fired his rifle without using an optic. That he didn't know how to shoot with iron sights. There are huge dissonance issues here for me. His statement that he didn't know how to shoot with iron sights (but can with an optic) implies that he really doesn't know how to shoot at all. Somewhere along the line he was never taught the real fundamentals of marksmanship. If he had been, then he would have known what successful shooting requires, and that an optic is only an enhancement to it. The principles are the same, the optic simply adds a more precise tool to use. My instructor couldn't believe that this was possible. How could someone be taught to use an optic before being taught to shoot well without one? He has never been a drill sergeant and so cannot Orient to that world. I saw this as a product of a training system where a decision was made to introduce the technology we posses earlier in training to alleviate the need for a lot of training further down the road. The training base would provide the operational Army a Soldier who already knew how to use the equipment attached to his/her rifle. I am certain, however, that not teaching a Soldier the basic requirements of successful target engagement was not part of the training idea. It probably never occurred to those who pushed the technology down to the trainee that the Drill Sergeant would skip over iron sight shooting. They believed they were enhancing the Soldier. Multiple Orientations. A lot of concentration on trees. What got lost in the translation was the forest. The Soldier still doesn't truly understand the fundamentals of marksmanship. My instructor heard something that didn't sound right. He listened to the dissonance. Thankfully, my team has one last chance to get that knowledge across to the Soldier. His next experience with a rifle could very likely be in a firefight.

Learning to listen to the dissonance is critical. People's lives depend upon it. It's that important.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.