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Foxes, Grapes, Stuart Lancaster and the HR Risks of Cognitive Dissonance

Foxes, Grapes, Stuart Lancaster and the HR Risks of Cognitive Dissonance

The way in which the recent departure of Stuart Lancaster as England's rugby coach was handled by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) raises the issue of how cognitive dissonance can apply to employee relations.

Cognitive dissonance, by way of reminder, is the common condition that causes people who have formed a belief to 'fit' the facts or new information that may appear to contradict their belief in order to, in fact, validate that belief. A long established example of this is Aesop's fable "The Fox and the Grapes" in which a fox sees some high-hanging grapes which he wants to eat. When the fox realises that the grapes cannot be reached, he decides that, in fact, he does not want the grapes because they are probably sour.

In the corporate world, cognitive dissonance can be most damaging where decision-makers have staked their reputation or ego on a decision. As evidence emerges that the decision was a poor one, managers will often come up with different interpretations of the evidence before them that supports their decision, rather than accept the evidence as an indication that the decision was flawed and needs to be reconsidered.

Back to Stuart Lancaster. To recap, England recently hosted the Rugby World Cup and, despite being one of the favourites and playing at home, they had a disastrous campaign and became the first host nation ever not to reach the knockout stages of the tournament.

Following England's exit, the RFU initiated a review of the role of Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team. This seems perfectly reasonable. However, the review was led by Stuart Ritchie, the CEO of the RFU, who had been a staunch supporter of Stuart Lancaster and had awarded him a lucrative (and unusually long) 6 year contract in 2014. In addition, Sir Ian McGeechan was on the panel. He had been on the panel that had recommended Stuart Lancaster's appointment in the first place and had said in the press prior to the review that Stuart Lancaster should remain in his post.

The obvious challenge was whether these individuals could look at the evidence they gathered during the review objectively or whether they would fit the evidence in order to conclude that Stuart Lancaster should stay on, thus validating their decisions to appoint him/award him a long term contract.

Ultimately, Stuart Lancaster left his role. This was presented as a mutual decision and there is nothing to suggest that Mr Lancaster had not reached the conclusion that he should step down. However, it is clear that the RFU had also reached this conclusion, indicating that the review panel had managed to avoid the cognitive dissonance trap on this occasion.

Of course, in this example the issues were stark and there was a strong element of public opinion of which the decision makers would have been well aware. This is rarely the case for a business’ employee relations issues. Take, for example, a scenario where a senior level hire is made to head up a business area. The hire is endorsed by the CEO, whilst other members of the senior management team have expressed reservations about the hire. The business area performs poorly following the hire and questions are being asked both in the market and within the senior management team about whether the new hire is the right person to lead that area of the business. The dangers here are clear:

a) the CEO, having endorsed the hire and put his reputation on the line, may well look for reasons beyond the business head to explain the poor performance and interpret any data or evidence to fit that narrative;

b) on the other hand, the doubting analysts or members of the senior management team may well interpret the same data or evidence to support their preferred narrative that the business head is not up to the job.

This is a senior level example, but the same issue can happen throughout an organisation.

Obviously, the aim is to form on objective view of why poor performance is happening. Given the way in which cognitive dissonance can prejudice this, wherever possible, an independent person will be better placed to assess the different potential reasons for the poor performance and to recommend what action is taken. This may include instigating a performance improvement plan for an employee or dismissing him/her or it may be removing structural or procedural blocks that are preventing the employee from performing at the required level.

Often, a line manager will make this assessment, but he/she, impeded by the effects of cognitive dissonance, will fit the evidence to the view he/she has expressed about the employee:

a) If this view is negative, there is a strong chance that the employee will be treated too harshly, which will often result in grievances/claims.

b) If this view is positive, the employee's failings may well be overlooked, causing the poor performance to continue and other employees to become frustrated and disengaged by the perceived favouritism.

Grievance and disciplinary procedures include a more independent view at the appeal stage, but by this point a situation is often beyond repair. What if that more a independent assessment was done at the outset?