Cognitive Dissonance

Fellow blogger Jen Turi recently blogged about cognitive dissonance as it relates to customer service and organizational performance.

In her blog entry, Jen writes about a customer service rep who is trained to take good care of the customer, but at the same time, she is told to get customers off the phone fast. The faster, the better. And faster was rewarded vs really taking the time to listen to customers and determine how best to help them.

Until seeing her posting, I realized I hadn't thought about cognitive dissonance in quite awhile. Coined decades ago by social psychologist Leon Festinger, the concept is simple: sometimes we find ourselves with two conflicting thoughts. When we experience this disturbing discord of thoughts, what do we do?

In his classic study, When Prophecy Fails, Festinger describes the solution hit upon by a group of people waiting for a spaceship to pick them up as the world comes to its end. When the date comes and goes, and they are still stranded on planet Earth, they are faced with a dilemma. Their fervent expectations had been dashed to pieces. Their solution: they revised their prophecy and went on believing.

In another classic, The 3 Christs of Ypsilanti, psychiatrist Milton Rokeach assembled three patients who each believed they were Jesus Christ. He wondered if confronting them with each other's conflicting claims would create enough cognitive dissonance to produce a psychiatric breakthrough. Unfortunately, this effort did not lessen the patients' delusions. The three Christs maintained their claim on their divine identity.

These cases say that, when it comes to cognitive dissonance, we believe what we want to believe. And even in the face of persuasive evidence, we hold fast to beliefs that may in fact have no basis in reality.

In the case of the customer service rep, faced with two conflicting organizational messages --take care of customers vs rush customers off the phone-- the rep landed on the side where the organizational rewards were greater. Quite sane, if you ask me.

But sad too. The message about caring for the customer was nothing but lip service.

Posted by Terrence Seamon on September 21, 2010. For more tips on communication, culture, and customer service, contact Terry and invite him to speak to your Managers.

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