In this New York Times’ article, Why You Hate Work, the writers, Tony Schwarz and Christine Porath, explore and explain why only 30% of Americans are engaged at work, according to Gallup, and why you hate work. “Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive,” they said, “it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.”
To an extent, this is seemingly evident, but in many ways it isn’t because not many people can admit to being in a workplace that provides these tenets. And yet, how many companies and businesses are aware of this fault in their system, know that it’s a core issue in why they’re losing money, but don’t do anything about it? Or rather, too scared and stuck to implement a solution that isn’t as difficult as it may seem? What’s baffling to me is that these businesses stay afloat for so long instead of crashing and burning.
One of the writers, Tony Schwartz, explains how his consulting company created a pilot program for accountants during tax season. They applied a strategy that facilitates a better workplace: ninety minute bursts of work, fifteen minute breaks, one-hour breaks in the afternoon, and they were allowed to leave once the work was complete, not stay an extra few hours just because. The conclusion was imminent: happier workers, less burnouts, less stress, and the turnover rate was lowered. What kills me the most was this one sentence about the scenario mentioned:
“Senior leaders were aware of the results, but the firm didn’t ultimately change any of its practices.”
So when I read something like that I’m left wondering, Why?
Why, when aware that there is a resounding issue and aware that there are solutions or a better perspective on the problem, is it so difficult to change one’s mind? Here is a company that just figured out a better way to do tax season with their accountants … but can’t change their practice? At first it’s easy to be mystified and say, “Wow, why wouldn’t they change?” but from what I learned by studying psychology thus far, I’m more inclined to not be surprised at all.
So I dug into my notes. What have I read that helps me understand this subject better, since I have no experience in running a large business, and also have no idea what it feels like to watch your ship sink? The core lesson here isn’t about the failing business, it’s about the failure to change one’s mind, which is influencing the failure of that business. We’ve talked about this before: self-justification.
In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), authors Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson share a fascinating study on the power of confirmation bias and why it’s so hard to change our minds once it’s made, and what we do when faced with an opposing point of view:
“Indeed, even reading information that goes against your point of view can make you all the more convinced you are right. In one experiment, researchers selected people who either favored or opposed capital punishment and asked them to read two scholarly, well-documented articles on the emotionally charged issue of whether the death penalty deters violent crimes. One article concluded that it did; the other that it didn’t. If the readers were processing information rationally, they would at least realize that the issue is more complex than they had previously believed and would therefore move a bit closer to each other in their beliefs about capital punishment as a deterrence. But dissonance theory predicts that the readers would find a way to distort the two articles. They would find reasons to clasp the confirming article to their bosoms, hailing it as a highly competent piece of work. And they would be supercritical of the disconfirming article, finding minor flaws and magnifying them into major reasons why they need not be influenced by it. This is precisely what happened. Not only did each side discredit the other’s arguments; each side became even more committed to its own.”
But how does it play out in our brains? It’s important to note here that the feeling we get, that tension between two inconsistent cognitions (“I am an experienced business leader for 20 years”) and (“My business is failing, employees are unhappy, we are losing money”) is called cognitive dissonance. When we are in that state, we apply the balm of self-justification to help us avoid feeling like a fraud—even if that means escaping reality, distorting information, denial, or flat-out lying. The authors share a result from study done by neuroscientists [emphasis by me]:
“Neuroscientists have recently shown that these biases in thinking are built into the very way the brain processes information — all brains, regardless of their owners’ political affiliation. For example, in a study of people who were being monitored by magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) while they were trying to process dissonant or consonant information about George Bush or John Kerry, Drew Westen and his colleagues found that the reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when participants were confronted with dissonant information, and the emotion circuits of the brain lit up happily when consonance was restored. These mechanisms provide a neurological basis for the observation that once our minds are made up, it is hard to change them.”
Self-justification, however, isn’t a flaw—it’s simply a part of human nature, how our minds work. Of course, it’s something that we can overcome with mindfulness and self-awareness. Painful, yes, but helpful indeed. Tavris and Aronson said it best [emphasis by me]:
“Self-justification has costs and benefits. By itself, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It lets us sleep at night. Without it, we would prolong the awful pangs of embarrassment. We would torture ourselves with regret over the road not taken or over how badly we navigated the road we did take. We would agonize in the aftermath of almost every decision: Did we do the right thing, marry the right person, buy the right house, choose the best car, enter the right career? Yet, mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It distorts reality, keeps us from getting all the information we need and assessing issues clearly.”
So what’s the fix here, what’s next? It’s not about avoiding the need to self-justify, but rather being mindful when we are. To truly assess our mistakes, spot errors, learn from them and change our minds is at the heart of self-awareness and mindfulness—a starting panacea to all shortcomings [emphasis by me]:
“A richer understanding of how and why our minds work as they do is the first step toward breaking the self-justification habit. And that, in turn, requires us to be more mindful of our behavior and the reasons for our choices. It take times, self-reflection, and willingness.”
“In our private relationships, we are on our own, and that calls for some self-awareness. Once we understand how and when we need to reduce dissonance, we can become more vigilant about the process and often nip it in the bud; like Oprah, we can catch ourselves before we slide too far down the pyramid. By looking at our actions critically and dispassionately, as if we were observing someone else, we stand a chance of breaking out of the cycle of action followed by self-justification, followed by more committed action. We can learn to put a little space between what we feel and how we respond, insert a moment of reflection, and think about whether we really want to buy that canoe in January, really want to send good money after bad, really want to hold on to a belief that is unfettered by facts. We might even change our minds before our brain freeze our thoughts into consistent patterns. Becoming aware that we are in a state of dissonance can help us make sharper, smarter, conscious choices instead of letting automatic, self-protective mechanisms resolve our discomfort in our favor.”
Facing all of ourselves, our defense mechanisms—from delusions, to ego-enhancement, to confirmation bias, to prejudice and stereotypes—is the battle of our entire lives. It shapes our decisions, well-being, and thought patterns. But this isn’t a battle with a happy ending, our flags planted on top of the hill. We are always in a constant struggle between carrying out our principles and exercising practical wisdom versus unconsciously reacting to our defensive mechanisms simply because that’s how we’re wired. Even with a rich understanding of how our minds work, we can often fall prey to self-justifying beliefs that are simply untrue or trying to cover a mistake as something noble and necessary. However, we can learn from these events, prepare to be more mindful next time, and to always remember that if we see someone else going through this process, that we should be compassionate towards them and realize that we, too, are capable for such errors.