Attitude, is a much used and equally abused word in daily life – both in the workplace and outside of it. It is often used to dismiss those who don’t ‘play along’ with broad stroke classifications of ‘having a wrong attitude’.

But therein lies the rub. Very few dig in deeper to understand what causes the positive or negative attitude. Take a moment to think about it – the attitude a person has is not something he is born with; it’s not something that is coded into his genetic material. So where does it come from?

What is generally referred to as attitude is essentially an ‘evaluation’ of how we ‘feel’ about something. When someone says he likes/dislikes/hates his job, he is putting forward his personal evaluation about his job.

People don’t leave organizations, they leave managers’ is one of those popular quotes that float around in the world of employee engagement. Let’s recreate a very common situation where an employee leaves the ‘manager’.

A disgruntled employee walks out of the door leaving a nasty feedback about his manager during his exit interview. HR then goes back to the manager and she counters, saying the employee had an attitude problem. Believe it or not – this simple description that is often met with a sigh and a shrug in leadership reviews hides more than it describes.


The ABC’s of Attitude:

Let’s take what happened and break it down. “A disgruntled employee walks out of the door leaving a nasty feedback about his manager during his exit interview.”

“A disgruntled employee” is the Affective Component of the attitude – the emotional segment of the attitude. It essentially describes what the employee is feeling – “I don’t like my manager”

“Walks out of the door” is the Behavioural Component – which describes the intent to behave in a particular way. Walks out of the door could be replaced with back-talking, bad-mouthing, not-cooperating, going-slow at work – take your pick.

“Leaving a Nasty Feedback” is the Cognitive Component – the mental evaluation the employee has of his situation. The feedback would typically be something on the lines of “my manager is not supportive of my work/does not help me with tools necessary to be effective/does not value my contribution etc.”

The Cognitive Component here is one the most important parts of the employee’s attitude. It is the thought that is going to drive the behavior. In fact, what the employee has in this case is Cognitive Dissonance.


So what is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive Dissonance is created when an individual sees an incompatibility between one or more attitudes or between attitudes and behaviours. This causes a feeling of discomfort which the employee then tries to reduce by altering attitude, belief or behaviours.

In this case it might be that the employee believes strongly that leaders should provide meaningful and constructive feedback to team members to break down silos to enable them to work together. What he sees instead is a divisive manager who shows preferences for some team members. This leads to a cognitive dissonance. Now assume the employee can minimize the discomfort in two ways – (a) by changing his belief and accepting that ‘this is the way things are’ or maybe by (b) changing his behavior of putting up with the problem and walking out.

But then why doesn’t everyone do this all the time? Why do they let the problems fester and be the ‘victims’ or worse, ‘cynics’? (refer post: Mapping the Employee Engagement Grid)

In 1960’s researcher Leon Festinger argued that the desire to reduce dissonance depends on ‘moderating factors’. The most important ones are

  • ‘Importance’ of the elements creating dissonance: If the job is not very important to the employee or a working relationship with the boss isn’t really important to the him, then he has little incentive to change the situation.
  • Degree of influence the person believes he has over the elements: If a top leader talks all the time of team work while being obviously partisan in handing out rewards, employees from other teams who might be (negatively) impacted might feel they simply don’t have the power to make a change.
  • Rewards of dissonance: A classic example of this might be the infamous golden-handcuffs. The employee might hate his manager, but has substantial financial or other benefits by continuing to be associated. The rewards (or perceived lack of it on resolving conflict) cause the employee to stay put by changing his beliefs.


Organizational Echo Chambers:

 Noted innovation consultant Alistair Brett says “People tend to talk to themselves, or to people who already share their ideas.” (supported by the Yes-Men in my previous post) When people (and organizations) start operating in echo chambers, things start to get a bit ‘linear’ (as several analyses of social media interactions in the US Presidential Elections have shown). Brett talks about how not being open to other opinions and ideas creates an innovation echo chamber eventually stifling good innovations.

I would take it a step further and argue there are Organizational Echo Chambers in most companies. This is especially true in organizations where one or a few vocal leaders are perceived as power centers and everyone is expected to align or leave!

When one shuts out alternative views and healthy discussions (when managers say “I don’t want any arguments, I have already thought through everything” or “because I said so”), when one doesn’t involve other teams (“this is a Finance/Sales/Marketing/Tech problem, so only the Finance/Sales/Marketing/Tech people need be involved”), when you create implicit (or even explicit) priorities among employees (“We need sales, so sales team gets priority treatment. Everyone else has to align with them”) – at the very least you kill new ideas and innovation, and at the worst you amplify cognitive dissonance among the workforce.


Breaking the loop – Implications for Managers:

Being aware of the complex dynamics behind what is usually brushed aside as an ‘attitude problem’ is the first step leaders can take towards breaking the negative loop.

The major job attitudes that employees have are Job Satisfaction, Job Involvement, Organizational Commitment, Perceived Organizational Support and finally Employee Engagement! Most of the research in OB has focused on the first three. The latter are only coming into the center of attention in the recent times. Data from surveys and research are now establishing linkages between these attitudes and organization performance.

Managers thus have to invest in understanding their employees’ attitudes and their own attitudes because they serve as advance warnings of potential problems that could undermine organizational goals in the long run.

References and Acknowledgements: 

Re-examining the job satisfaction-performance relationship: the complexity of attitudes. (

Organizational Behavior, Stephen P. Robbins et. al. 

Human Connections: Antidote To The Innovation Echo Chamber, Henry Doss, Forbes



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