The Cockroach Congruency

While I was having lunch recently, I noticed something interesting. The quality of the food was good and at the same time the hygiene standards of the establishment were lacking: The tables were clean, yet close inspection revealed that the floor was actually full of dirt. Furthermore, none of the staff seemed to notice or care: They were all busy simply serving clients. The mess on the floor was completely incongruent with the overall image of quality and care of the establishment. Suddenly, I found myself doubting their standards in other areas than floor hygiene as well.

Congruency is a very important, yet often overlooked feature of any organization. Think of the last time you encountered numerous typos in an official marketing document and the impact it had on your perception of the quality standards of this organization. This is how our brains work: It accepts any initial image or statement, after which it will look for data to either support, or challenge the original image.  A single incongruent observation, even small and innocent, may change the entire perception.

This phenomenon is called the cockroach congruency. It means that there is no such thing as a single cockroach. If you notice one thing which is wrong, you expect other things to be wrong as well. This, for example, is the reason that corporate fraud cases are rarely limited to a single individual, but usually involve an entire fraudulent culture with multiple players.

Since we may not always be aware of incongruent signals, it’s therefore useful to invite an external view of our own organization on a regular basis. After all, it sometimes takes a different perspective to spot the hidden cockroach….

Photo Credit: iStockPhoto/gaga vastard

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