Ideas on People and Performance, Team Building, Motivation and Innovation

Stress as a Motivator? Cognitive Dissonance and Square Wheels!

In the LinkedIn discussion mentioned in a previous post, the question arose as to whether stress was motivational and if it has a link to creativity. The question was expressed as:

What impact do you think stress has on innovation – does it hinder or help the creative process? Does Stress work like the “fight or Flight” response?

I think that this is more than a fair question and my response and reactions are pretty straightforward.

Two framing questions that I would ask are, Whose stress is it?” and “How MUCH stress does it generate?”

If the performer sees a gap between where they are and where they want to be, that will usually generate “a stress” — consider it a motivational drive. That can be very positive since it is self-generated. It is healthy if that gap is perceived to be something that can be closed and the goal achieved — it is one of the things that is involved in self-generated, intrinsic motivation.

I think of that old work on “Cognitive Dissonance” (Leon Festinger in the 1950s) that clearly explains and researches this issue. He focused on gaps and the  discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may feel emotions of frustration caused by the differences in their goals, thoughts and actions and that people are motivated to close that gap.

An example of this would be the conflict often seen in smokers who, knowing that  smoking is unhealthy and annoying to others, will often change their feelings to not caring or to thinking that the smoking is worth short term benefits. A general view of cognitive dissonance is that a person is biased towards a certain action even though other factors favor different alternatives. It is this gap that sets up the possibility of change — without this perception, little motivation exists.

Festinger in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent belief in an impending apocalypse. Festinger subsequently published a book called “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance”, published in 1957, in which he outlined the theory. Since then, Cognitive Dissonance has been one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology because it is simple and straightforward.

The theory says that people have a bias to seek congruence and alignment among their thoughts, engaging in a process Festinger termed “dissonance reduction.” This can be achieved in any of three ways:

  1. lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors,
  2. adding consonant elements, or
  3. changing one of the dissonant factors.

What we do with our Square Wheels illustration is to set up a Rorschach Inkblot Test-like condition by showing the Square Wheels One illustration and asking people how it might represent how things really work in most organizations. With that very general introduction, and a few minutes of thinking time, individuals and groups of people will identify a variety of key themes about the cartoon and how things work. Since the cartoon is unreferenced and very general, people project their beliefs and thoughts onto it.

Once that has occurred, and the themes and thoughts are anchored and discussed, we can then simply ask the participants to suggest what might be represented by those Square Wheels in their workplaces, with Square Wheels being defined as the things that do not work smoothly. Next, we can have discussions about possible Round Wheels (there are many ways to facilitate these discussions to generate desired outcomes).

It is this creative cognition of a Square Wheel and the associated relationship of some Round Wheel(s) to it that generates the cognitive dissonance, the gap between how things are and how they could be. It is that gap which helps generate the motivation to change, to remove the Square Wheel and add the Round One into the situation. This IS a stress, but not a debilitating one.

And if this discussion is done at tabletops with 5 or 6 participants, there is often enough “creational mass” to generate some commitment to implement the idea or improvement.

We find that Square Wheels illustrations work pretty much everywhere. I have used them with Most Senior Managers in large multinationals as well as in workshops with managers and front-line employees. We have delivered this concept in schools, pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies and all sorts of industries and in sessions with hundreds of people representing every level of management.

Ideas for improvement are simply ideas — the key is generating enough motivational stress through cognitive dissonance and peer support so that things get implemented and changed and improved. These cartoons are unique in their effectiveness as organizational development tools — Fast, Simple and Effective.

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is a globally experienced presenter and consultant.
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at

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1 Comment

  1. Lou Carloni sent me his email of his writings, which just happened to be on workplace stress and dealing with it productively. I reproduce it here, along with his contact info:

    * Dealing With Workplace Stress Productively *

    Everyone has job related stress. Some handle it better than others, and their lives and their careers are richer for it. We have studied successful people in this area and arrived at a few commonalities.
    Your personal success rests on your ability to handle stress. Want to achieve real success? Try these strategies.

    * Key Strategies *

    1 “The past does not equal the future.”
    Per Anthony Robbins. Just because you tried something once, or a million times, and it didn’t work out as you hoped don’t stop trying. Change what you are doing a little and try again.

    2 “Live in day-tight compartments.”
    Courtesy Dale Carnegie, you must stop trying to relive the past, or pre-live the future. All you have control over is here and now. Focus on today and the joys you can bring into the lives of those you touch.

    3 “Take a walk.”
    From Jude Biedenkapp who prescribes that several times a day you stand up, leave your office, and walk for five minutes (outside if possible). Get away from the stressful environment before it gets the best of you.

    4 “List everything you need to do.”
    Instead of thinking about how much work there is, just write it down on a list. Then decided how much time each project will take. Then find a place for each activity on your daily to-do list or schedule within the next several days then get back to living in day-tight compartments.

    5 “Procrastinate procrastinating.”
    From Anthony Robbins who acknowledges your need to put things off. He suggests that in order to reduce stress and satisfy your procrastination need you should put off putting off. Decide that you will procrastinate next week. Then get to work.
    6 “Get a life.”
    Each person needs to develop a fulfilling private and social life that you go home to after the workday. Spend quality time with loved ones, perform charitable volunteer activities, play games or sports (adults love games even more than kids do). If it makes you feel better you can schedule time to do this on your planner.

    7 “Get a pet.”
    A bird, a fish, a dog, a cat, some kind of animal. Therapy for stress often involves animals. They provide a feeling of love, warmth, and of being okay. Your need for a pet did not end with childhood. And the cost of a pet doesn’t have to break you budget. Animal shelters have an abundance of low cost, low maintenance pets available for immediate delivery.

    Lou Carloni
    SMBC Incorporated
    863 Iron Corner Court
    Odenton MD 21113, USA

    Phone: (410) 721-1512
    Fax: (410) 695-2780
    Web address:

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