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“You Aren’t Who I Thought You Were and It’s Driving Me Crazy” by Sondra Thiederman
DiversityBusiness.com Article/- I hate it when this happens: I meet someone and they look or sound a particular way and, instantly, into my head pops an idea of what they are like – what they enjoy, what they’re good at, and a myriad of other details. The problem is most of the time, as I get to know them better, I turn out to be dead wrong about a lot of those details.

I hate this mostly because I end up feeling sort of stupid. Also, it’s vaguely aggravating and I want to ask something like, “Hey, this can’t be right, you’re a gay man, you’re supposed to be artistic – what’s wrong with you anyway?”

Coping with Cognitive Dissonance:

OK, that may be a bit exaggerated, but the discomfort that results from being wrong when evaluating someone has been felt by most of us. That discomfort grows from the psychological truism that human beings can’t stand believing one thing and having the evidence in front of us – in this case the true nature of an individual – contradict that belief.

This disconnect between belief and evidence is called “cognitive dissonance.” Because cognitive dissonance is so unpleasant, our minds automatically struggle to eliminate the inconsistency between what we see and what we previously believed. There are several ways to achieve this goal. One way – and the only productive one – is to change our minds to conform to the evidence in front of us. In other words, believe what we see and have the willingness to admit that we had been wrong.

A second option is far less productive and, in fact, is downright dangerous. In this case, we rationalize what we see to fit our previous assumption. Take, for example, the hotel HR Director who assumed that the Japanese applicant she was interviewing would, because of her culture, be too shy and retiring for the high-powered sales position for which she was applying. The problem for the interviewer was that the applicant’s behavior belied this stereotype – assertive, outgoing, talkative. For all appearances, she was a perfect fit for the job.

Sadly, however, the interviewer could not accept that her expectation about what a young woman from Japan would be like was wrong. In order to get comfortable with the dissonance between what she believed and what she saw, the HR Director found a way to rationalize away the behavior. She said to herself – and all this, of course, is taking place at lightening speed, “Well, she may seem assertive, but I’ll bet she is just faking it for this interview” and sent her on her way. The applicant, by the way, ended up working for a key competitor and – through the years – securing for her new employer hundreds of thousands of dollars of convention business.

The third option for ridding ourselves of the discomfort of cognitive dissonance is, believe it or not, even more damaging than rationalizing away the evidence that our belief is mistaken. It simply is to walk away from the person who is making us feel crazy. After all, if we’re not together, we won’t be reminded of our error and can drift on in blissful ignorance.

Workplace Application & Solution:

If you are at a party or the mall, just walking away is no big deal, but what if you are interviewing this person? Think of the consequences of our letting this subconscious survival tactic take hold and cause us to reject someone merely because they don’t fit our expectations.

Fortunately, there are practical things we can do to minimize the damage that cognitive dissonance can cause. Here are four simple strategies:
  • Engage multiple people in the interviewing process. This way any one person’s bias and the cognitive dissonance it creates can be spotted and compensated for by clearer heads and more accurate perceptions.
  • Update all job requirements to reflect accurately the needed skills and knowledge. Carefully examine each description to make sure it is free of any stereotypes or biases about what and who is required for the position.
  • Make your decision as much as possible on objective requirements rather than subjective qualities.
  • Ask yourself if you are responding negatively to the applicant because of their actual lack of qualifications and fit or if, on the other hand, your reaction is based in personal discomfort.


Cognitive dissonance is admittedly part of the human condition. Like most other aspects of that “condition,” however, there is a lot we can do to minimize its impact on our decisions, our behaviors, and our workplaces.

Sondra Thiederman is a speaker and author on bias-reduction, diversity, and cross-cultural issues. Her latest book is Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace that provides practical tools for defeating bias and bias-related conflicts in the workplace. Most recently, she has completed work on the training video Is It Bias? Making Diversity Work. This video-based training is available through Learning Communications (www.learncom.com). She can be contacted for Webinars and in-person presentations at: www.Thiederman.com, STPhD@Thiederman.com.

About DiversityBusiness.com
Launched in 1999, DiversityBusiness, with over 50,000 members, is the largest organization of diversity owned businesses throughout the United States that provide goods and services to Fortune 1000 companies, government agencies, and colleges and universities. DiversityBusiness provides research and data collection services for diversity including the "Top 50 Organizations for Multicultural Business Opportunities", "Top 500 Diversity Owned Companies in America", and others. Its research has been recognized and published by Forbes Magazine, Business Week and thousands of other print and internet publications. The site has gained national recognition and has won numerous awards for its content and design. DiversityBusiness reaches more diverse suppliers and communicates more information to them on a more frequent basis then all other organizations combined. We also communicate with mainstream businesses, government agencies and educational institutions with information related to diversity. Our magazine reaches over 300,000 readers, a monthly e-newsletter that reaches 2.4 million, and website visitors of 1.2 million a month. It is a leading provider of Supplier Diversity management tools and has the most widely distributed Diversity magazine in the United States. DiversityBusiness.com is produced by Computer Consulting Associates International Inc. (CCAii.com) of Southport, CT. Founded in 1980.


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