Scroll Top

Mistakes Were Made…



In that iconic courtroom scene from the classic movie “A Few Good Men”, Tom Cruise demands the truth from Jack Nicholson, and [spoiler alert] much to the surprise of Tom, and everyone else in the room, Jack tells him the truth. In so doing, and in what appears to be an act of extreme self-harm, he implicates himself in a murder committed by his Marines in the name of some very misguided values.

That scene, and Jack’s compulsion to tell the truth despite the consequences, is a great example of something called cognitive dissonance in action. Cognitive dissonance is the mental and even physical discomfort we feel when we attempt to hold two contradictory beliefs in our brain-boxes at the same time. In Jack’s case, the lie – that he had no knowledge of what his men were doing when they killed their fellow Marine – was irreconcilable with his own view of himself as the god-like supreme commander of those men. If he was willing to publicly state that they had done something without his knowledge or authority, he would also have to admit that he was not in complete control. So, the control freak finally won, and he fessed up: “You can’t handle the truth,” he yelled at Tom.

But what he really meant was – “I can’t handle the lie.”

“We all know someone that seems blind to their own inconsistencies, but it’s never us”

Lies, Damn Lies and Psycholinguistics

If you were a control freak like Jack, then publicly claiming that you were out of control would be a bit like sticking your hand in a vat of boiling oil – it would really hurt. Just like physical pain, we go out of our way to avoid the mental pain of cognitive dissonance, so we’ll find a way to address the conflict – known as self-justification. For Jack then, rather ironically, telling the truth was not an act of self-harm after all, but an act of self-defence.

For the rest of us, the self-justification response to cognitive dissonance can show up in all kinds of somewhat less constructive ways. For example:

  • Dave is trying to give up smoking. He’s not an idiot – he knows it’s really bad for him, but it’s also really hard to give up. So instead of feeling the pain of that dissonance, he justifies the habit by telling himself (and others) that it helps with his anxiety, and anyway if he did give up, he’d gain weight which is probably worse for him.
  • Jane fiddles her expenses now and again. But…she’s not a thief, so…she justifies that disconnect by telling herself that it’s a company perk, and everyone does it…Right?
  • Arshad knows he’s a good husband and father, but he needs to stay late at the office most nights because his work is just too damn important right now. He justifies it by telling himself that he’s working hard to build a career, the money he’s making is probably worth more to his family than his time anyway, and his eventual success will benefit everyone.
  • Natalia takes an online closed-book exam. It’s not monitored, so she looks at her books every now and again…just to check she got the answers right. She’s not a cheat of course, and she figures everyone does it and they probably even expect it and factor it in on the pass grade.
  • Max uses a residential street as a cut-throught on his commute to the office if he’s running a bit late, and will sometimes exceed the speed-limit if the coast is clear. He’s not a reckless driver of course, just a busy and important person that needs to get to work on time.

We’d be willing to bet that you can come up with a few examples of your own. We’d also wager, however, that none of them feature your own remarkable attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. That’s because we all know someone that seems blind to their own inconsistencies, but it’s never us.

“When we’re in our ‘box’, we’ll do everything we can to preserve or reinforce it, which means we’ll even coerce others into behaving in a way that is consistent with our distorted world view”

…But Not By Me

In their fascinating book, “Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me”, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explore the ways in which our ability to pull the wool over our own eyes can have catastrophic effects on individuals, organizations and even nations. Behind everything from Watergate to the War on Terror, cognitive dissonance and the resultant self-justification can explain the irrational path we’re all capable of taking on the road to self-destruction. And, while our indiscretions might not have the same impact as those of Nixon, Bush or Blair, the lies we tell ourselves can be equally as destructive, albeit on a smaller scale.

This idea is picked up in “Leadership and Self Deception” by the Arbinger Institute. In it the authors identify the key moment as when we have an instinct to do something positive – like getting up in the middle of the night to tend to the crying baby and to allow our partner to rest – and if we fail to honor that instinct, we commit an act of what they call self-deception or, in our parlance, self-justification, to protect ourselves from the resultant cognitive dissonance: “It’s not fair that I should get up anyway when I have that important meeting tomorrow – I need to sleep”, and then, as we get on a roll: “Wow, my partner is so selfish for even thinking I should get up.” Ouch! 

Keep in mind that the afore mentioned partner may not even be aware that the baby is crying at this point, and has certainly done nothing to suggest that it’s your turn to deal with it. And yet, here we are, quietly fuming at their selfishness, all on our very own.

It doesn’t take long for this view of ourselves to become dominant, and with each lie we tell to justify the original act of self-deception, the stronger that view becomes. Arbinger describe this dominant self-image as ‘the box’ – and when we’re in our ‘box’, we’ll do everything we can to preserve or reinforce it, which means we’ll even coerce others into behaving in a way that is consistent with our distorted world view. You can see how an I-need-you-to-be-bad-so-I-can-feel-good approach to any relationship in work or life can become toxic pretty fast. So much so, in fact, that the cultural issues facing many organizations are often rooted in this problem.

“The good news is that the harder something is to do, the more committed we will be to it. It turns out that cognitive dissonance works both ways.”

Breaking the Cycle

By now, dear reader, it’s not unreasonable to expect that you might be experiencing some of your own cognitive dissonance. We’ve probably all done some variation of at least one of the examples we’ve used to illustrate the points above, so if this is all sounding a bit too familiar, then don’t worry, your self-justifier will be gearing up to fix the problem for you. Maybe it’s saying: “OK, so that sounds a bit like something I’ve done, but in my case it really was justifiable…and anyway, what do these guys know about any of this stuff, they’re not professional psychologists – heck, I think I’ll just unsubscribe from their blog and get on with my life without all this judgement.”

OK, so let’s try and hit the pause button for a moment! Take a few deep breaths, and as you inhale, count to 5 – hold for 5, breathe out in 5, and hold again for 5, then repeat. Do all that 5 times before you read on…

Our first response will often be driven by the voice of our self-justifier. It’s very fast, well-practiced, and a master of manipulation. You will be utterly convinced of whatever it comes up with. But, as we’ve already discussed, that doesn’t make it right.

But, since we’re now being a bit more mindful and intentional about our reactions after our little breathing exercise, why not take a moment consider how you’d really like to respond, if you had the choice.

If we go back to our earlier example of Dave the smoker: He’s currently chosen to resolve his dissonance by justifying the act of smoking (reduce anxiety, avoid weight gain etc). He could, however, resolve it by quitting smoking!

Seems pretty obvious, right? Obvious, but not easy.

The good news is that the harder something is to do, the more committed we will be to it. That’s because it turns out cognitive dissonance works both ways – after all, why would we do something hard unless it was worthwhile to us? As a result, we tend to be: more committed to fraternities with a tougher initiation process; more committed to learning institutions with a tougher entrance exam; more committed to bosses that push us to go further than we think we can go; …and, so on. Cognitive dissonance to the rescue!

In Dave’s case, by taking the hard path to quit smoking, his self-justifier will once again step up and explain away the pain, but this time to reinforce what most would agree is a more positive approach to the problem. If he’s lucky, he might even manage to create a virtue of such a selfless act, and he’ll become one of those evangelical ex-smokers we’ve all met*.

[*We once worked for a company run by a fanatical ex-smoker that banned smoking on all company sites, even outdoors, well before the rest of the world woke up to the idea. The sight of our colleagues huddled together just outside the entrance gate in the pouring january rain will never leave us!]

Just like Dave, if you choose to resolve your dissonance by removing the initial conflict rather than justifying it, sure you might experience a little pain and effort to begin with, but this will quickly fade, and you’ll recover far more quickly to your true, authentic self. The alternative is to live with the conflict, and to keep building on each small lie as you work to justify it to yourself and the world. That [spoiler alert] doesn’t end well, though.

So, next time you feel the pain of dissonance and hear that little voice of self-justification whispering in your ear, try taking a few mindful breaths before choosing your path forward, because you may just find yourself on a slippery slope.

Of course, whatever you choose will be perfectly justifiable.


What now?

If this article resonates with you, please share it with others. You can also leave a comment below to let us know you visited and share any additional insights you might be able to offer other readers.

And, if you’d like to know more about how you can unlock the potential in your High Potential employees in a safe, sustainable and scalable way, please visit, or join our mailing list.

Privacy Preferences
When you visit our website, it may store information through your browser from specific services, usually in form of cookies. Here you can change your privacy preferences. Please note that blocking some types of cookies may impact your experience on our website and the services we offer.