In 1958, psychology professor Judson Mills conducted a famous study of cheating behavior with a group of sixth graders.

Mills administered a test to the group that none could pass without cheating. Before administering the test, Mills measured each student’s attitudes about cheating.

He then passed out the test to the sixth graders and left the room so they could take it unsupervised, but with a hidden camera recording the session.

Some of the students cheated, some did not.

Following the test, Mills again measured each student’s attitude toward cheating. Not surprisingly, Mills found that those students who cheated grew more lenient in their attitude about cheating, while those who did not cheat felt even more negative about cheaters.

The results supported the notion that, in order to reduce cognitive dissonance and feel better about their choice, whether they cheated or not, the students justified their actions to retain their self-concept.

To cope with cognitive dissonance, we use three different tactics to reconcile disharmony.

  • First, we can change our beliefs: “Cheating is okay.”
  • Second, we can change our actions: “I’ll never cheat again.”
  • Third – and the most common tactic – we can change our perception or memory of an action: “Since everyone cheated on that test, why shouldn’t I?”

Reconceptualizing the behavior provides a pleasant and convenient way to deal with disharmony, and it supports our natural human desire to see ourselves as basically good and reasonable people.


Cognitive dissonance – the discomfort that ensues when we hold contradictory beliefs about ourselves – offers a fine tool for making mental adjustments.

Self-awareness always precedes any transformational change in thinking and behavior.

When you choose to engage in self-reflection and ponder the ways you naturally or willfully distort reality, you have taken the first crucial step toward greater self-awareness.

When you spot your defense shields going up, pause for a minute.

Rather than rationalize the negative consequences of your actions or finger point with statements like…

“It’s not my fault…”

“It’s beyond my control…”

“It was bound to happen anyway…”

“I’ll let it slide just this once…”

“She made me do it…”

…try to replace the “I” with the more inclusive “we”…

  • “Let’s see if we can figure out what went wrong…”
  • “It’s time we stop playing the blame game and get back on track…”
  • “Since we own this problem, let’s take steps to solve it…”
  • “We need to learn from this…”
  • “We can do better…”


Once you catch yourself in the act of self-defense in the wake of failure, try using this simple exercise to get yourself thinking in a more panoramic manner:

Step One: Challenge your assumptions. Try to disprove, rather than prove, your hypotheses. Since confirmation bias makes it incredibly hard to do this, bring the decision to your trusted advisers, asking them to spot potential roadblocks and offer alternative solutions.

Step Two: Consider the impact of this particular decision on all the stakeholders involved, including your employees, the organizational culture, the customers, the community, the environment, and your shareholders.

Step Three: Get feedback from the people most deeply affected by your decision. Again, fight your urge to explain away the feedback. Remember the old saying, “We have two ears and one mouth for a reason, use them proportionally.”

I offer one last piece of advice.

Never shy away from saying, “I was wrong.”

Leaders hate to admit their failings, but doing so makes people respect you more than all the rationalizations and justifications in the world.