>Overvaluing the Outsider

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Harvard Business Review (HBR), April 2010, has an article entitled “Envy At Work” by Menon and Thompson that describes research that shows that “people want to learn more about ideas that come from other companies than about ideas that originate in their own organizations.”

The reason that we value outside opinions over inside ones is that we fear elevating the person whose opinion we espouse. In other words, if we endorse an idea of a person in the organization, then we risk being seen as not only supporting the idea, but the person, and then having our power potentially being subsumed by that person.

The HBR article states: “When we copy an idea from an outsider, we’re seen as enterprising; when we borrow an idea from a colleague, we mark that person as an intellectual leader.”

This kind of thinking harms the organization. For rather than seeing our colleagues as teammates, we see them as competitors. We work against each other, rather than with each other. We spend our time and energy fighting each other for power, influence, resources, and rewards, instead of teaming to build a bigger pie where everyone benefits.

According to Menon and Thompson, “The dislike of learning from inside rivals has a high organizational price. Employees instead pursue external ideas that cost more both in time (which is often spent reinventing the wheel) and in money (if they hire consultants).”

I’m reminded of the saying, “You can’t be a prophet in your land,” which essentially translates to the idea that no matter how smart you are, people inside your own organization will generally not value your advice. Rather they will prefer to go outside and pay others to tell them the same thing that it cannot bear to hear from its own people.

Funny enough, I remember some consultants telling me a few years ago, “That’s what we get paid for, to tell you what you already know.”

Remember the famous line by Woody Allen, “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member”? The flip side of this is that as soon as the organization brings you into their club, they have contempt for you because you are now one of them.

How do we understand the capability of some people to overcome their natural tendency toward envy and be open to learning from others inside the organization? More specifically, how do we as leaders create a culture where such learning is facilitated and becomes a normal part of life in the workplace?

One way to start is by benchmarking against other organizations that have been successful at this—“Most Admired Companies” like Goldman Sachs, Apple, Nike, and UPS. When one starts to do this, one sees that it comes down to a combination of self-confidence, lack of ego, putting the employees first, and deep commitment to a set of core values. It may not feel natural to do this at first – in a “dog-eat-dog” world, it is natural to fear losing one’s slice of the pie – but leaders who commit to this model can delegate, recognize, and reward their people without concern that they personally will lose something in the process.

The leader sets the tone, and when the tenor is “all for one and one for all,”— the organization and its people benefit and grow. This is something to be not only admired, but emulated.

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