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HomePerspectivesPaul WinklerCognitive Dissonance and the Catholic Business Leader 

Cognitive Dissonance and the Catholic Business Leader 

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological term for the mental stress or discomfort we feel when we are confronted with new information which conflicts with our current ideas, beliefs or values.  

A biblical example of this would be the Bread of Life Discourse. Jesus told his followers that they had to eat his body and drink his blood. According to Matthew, many of his followers, upon hearing this from Jesus, couldn’t handle this truth, so they packed up their things and went back to their original way of life.  

Most business leaders that I have met who identify as Catholic don’t see the relevance of weaving their Catholic faith into the fabric of their business. I believe that it’s due to the massive knowledge gaps that exist between Catholic clergy, academia and business executives. Instead of recognizing the need for and importance of each part of the body (St. Paul) that work together as a whole, each group works as if they can exist in a vacuum and get along just fine without the others. This knowledge gap causes cognitive dissonance in business leaders when one suggests to them a Catholic way of running their business. It makes them extremely uncomfortable, especially in our current apostolic age. 

The responses I have received from Catholic business executives when discussing better integrating their faith and their work have ranged from anger, panic and most often an uneasy “deer in the headlights” look caused by yes, that nasty cognitive dissonance. Readers old enough to remember the original Lost in Space TV series will remember that the robot, when faced with a problem it couldn’t solve, would reply, “Does not compute.” The generally accepted norm for Catholics is that holiness is the domain of the clergy to be shared with the laity only in the confines of Church. Of course, this is 100% untrue but 100% comfortable if we are to fit in with society.  

What doesn’t compute is that it seems easier for leaders, even Catholic ones, to read about and accept as normal daily reports of scandal after scandal in all segments of society, than it is to accept the concept of integrating the tenets of their faith into the workplace. Lying, cheating, stealing, fraud, dishonesty and corruption all seem like rather normal practices for worldlings these days both inside and outside the Church. We take the news with a shrug as it becomes the new normal in society.  

A very large chasm exists in the lives of Catholic business leaders. Standing on one side of this chasm are the clergy and educators, most of whom have failed to understand and then teach Catholic social teaching (CST) in a meaningful way to all the Catholic faithful and especially to those who lead businesses. CST teaches that work should be first and foremost to honor and love God and to make a contribution to the common good through the valuable goods and services which businesses provide for society. With an understanding of the pillars of CST and proper instruction, a leader could effortlessly run a Catholic faith-centered business as if it were second nature. And I’m not talking about Catholic non-profits — I’m talking about any business.  

On the other side of the chasm stand most Catholics business leaders, who are largely driven by the principles that they were taught in business school. Business schools still teach that the sole mission of business is to maximize the return of the shareholder. There might be some business-social movements out there like the B-Corp, but when a company is beholden to Wall Street, it will always acquiesce to “money over mission,” and profits will always come before people — the very people who helped generate the profit.

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A word about profit so you don’t think me a money-hating commie. The Church, as do I, recognizes the role of profit. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus: “The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well….” (#35). But wait, there’s more! He continues: “But profitability is not the only indicator of a firm’s condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people — who make up the firm’s most valuable asset — to be humiliated and their dignity offended” (#35). No wonder business leaders ignore the Church.  

She wants us to see that those we interact with during the business day are not objects to be used and disposed of using a utilitarian equation, but rather human beings who are to be treated with dignity.  

The conflict between the head and heart are exacerbated by the principles that are taught in business school, which often prioritize self-interest and profit over human dignity and the common good which we read about in the daily news. However, integrating Catholic social teaching into business practices —that is, putting the human person at the center of work — can lead to a more fulfilling and purpose-driven approach to work, which can benefit all those who interact with businesses. Secular studies have shown time and time again that success and profitability are a not-so-surprising bi-product of a happy and engaged workforce.  

Paul Winkler
Paul Winkler
Paul Winkler is the founder of Atollo, a Catholic business leadership development company based in Denver. Learn more at attollousa.com.
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