Isobel is a lawyer who has chosen a career in the law because she wanted to work in a profession that engaged her skills and would assure her financial independence.
Growing up Isobel witnessed both of her parents working hard to earn a living. Isobel’s mother was a confident, self – sufficient woman who earned well, was financially independent, and would emphasise to her daughter that it was important to never have to ask a man for anything, least of all money.
Isobel has followed closely in her mother’s footsteps; she has a good sense of her worth and the valuable contribution she makes to the city law firm she is employed by. Due to her hard work and dedication to the firm, Isobel has been promoted rapidly through the ranks, achieving success at a rate that many would say is remarkable, enviable even. Despite her success, her pay status has not appreciated accordingly. When the time comes for her pay review with her male boss, Isobel accepts the figure offered without question. With friends she often half jokingly dismisses the disappointment she feels at being paid less than her male counterparts.
Conflicting values and cognitive dissonance
As a result Isobel finds herself faced with conflicting values, or what psychologists and coaches commonly refer to as Cognitive Dissonance. This occurs in a situation where conflict arises between belief, behaviour and attitude. The conflict between the three will generally lead to a feeling of mental discomfort or feeling stuck. The relief from the discomfort requires a shift in attitude, belief or behaviour. These are the symptoms of cognitive dissonance that keep Isobel from achieving what she really wants – to be paid her worth.
We all naturally have an inner need to hold all our attitudes, beliefs and behaviour in harmony – Cognitive Consistency. When there is a lack of alignment or harmony then it becomes necessary to change something to alleviate the dissonance.
What can we do to alleviate Cognitive Dissonance?
Cognitive dissonance causes internal discomfort that we naturally seek to alleviate or avoid. To alleviate the feeling of dissonance we have a few choices.
We can devalue the cognition.
Isobel could just tell herself “Money isn’t everything.”
We can acquire new information.
Isobel has heard in her professional network that current research shows the gender pay gap is closing. With this information, she tells herself that there is no need to ask her boss for what is already on its way.
We can change the way we behave.
Isobel could change her behaviour and ask her boss to pay her in accordance with her performance and value.
The challenge for her is that it is difficult to change well-learned behaviour, particularly if the behaviour is attached to a sense of loyalty, love and respect for a parent. Her mother has consistently emphasised the importance of not asking a man for anything.
Not all choices are equal
In this example the first two scenarios are easy to do and may well create temporary relief from the dissonance. However, after the temporary relief has gone, Isobel – who is already feeling resentful – will continue to give the outward appearance of accepting the situation while privately the resentment will just grow. Her boss, who can only follow what her outward behaviour shows, will continue to believe that she is happy with the way things are.
The most effective solution is the most challenging: Isobel can choose to change her behaviour. Changing her behaviour may feel like the riskier option because it asks that she question her loyalties to her mother. However, greater risk may also present her with greater financial rewards, growth and confidence in her ability to adapt when needed and wanted.
With the support of a good coach or therapist we can find a path to honour the truth of who we truly are, rather than who we were raised to be. Changing patterns of behaviour that stifle our sense of joy and fulfilment in life is not easy but it is certainly possible. The added bonus is that you liberate your children and grandchildren from blindly following unhelpful beliefs, attitudes and patterns of behaviour that may well have been swirling around your family system for several generations unchecked. By addressing her beliefs and behaviour now, Isobel can model different behaviour not only for her family but for other female members of her firm. It takes courage, but the rewards will benefit her-self, her family system and her work system.
Zita Tulyahikayo and James Pereira QC are coaches and co-founders of the Libra Partnership (firstname.lastname@example.org) offering coaching and other performance enhancing services to lawyers, barristers, law firms and chambers.