- Leandro Herrero - https://leandroherrero.com -

‘Forget what they say, observe what they do’. The ‘uniqueness paradox’ revisited. A bit.

Some people in organizations believe that they are working in a very bureaucratic, hierarchical, political and rigid environment. Many of them, not all, have not worked in an even more bureaucratic, hierarchical, political and rigid company, so what they see is their standard of dysfunctionality. Nobody is possibly as complicated, and rigid, and hierarchical, than us, they may say.

If they have the misfortune of moving to a really more bureaucratic, hierarchical, political and rigid company, then they see the past with nostalgia. But, how could they possibly have joined a more bureaucratic, hierarchical, political and rigid company?

Scenario 1: they did not think it was, did not look like, did not sound like, and the move was a promotion, by the way.
Scenario 2: It is actually not much different than the previous one, but suddenly ‘the grass looked greener’ over there.
Scenario 3: It is true, it’s worse. Punto.
Scenario 4: Actually both are objectively not that bad, at all, but the employee does not know better, it has no extra references.
Scenario? Please carry on, combine or imagine

Point is, we all have our own perception and bias towards what we see in front, a form of ‘availability bias’, which is also very much influenced by the sets of values and beliefs and narratives: this company is such and such. Collective belief that ;we are very hierarchical’, for example, does not make a hierarchical organization. Not necessarily.

Actually, it can also go the other way. And I have seen it many times: here we are not political, not bureaucratic, not opaque, not rigid. But, by God they are.

That is why relying on what the employee say, including their leadership, is not near as efficient as observing what they actually do. ‘Forget what they say, observe what they do’, is a pretty good heuristic rule.

At the core, a bit deep, but not much, is also a belief that your own organization is unique, one way or another. And that has been tested experimentally, although the study is a bit old. It ended up being called ‘the uniqueness paradox’: the strong belief that we are, err, unique. This is a variation of the more prosaic, ‘this can only happen to me’, which is of course almost impossible. Employees tend to overestimate the uniqueness of their company, the same as people tend to overestimate their skills. If you are interested in these findings, ask Mr Google, he’ll find them for you in seconds.

One of the advantages of my job as organization architect is that it comes with a vaccination against that ‘uniqueness paradox’. Working with organizations of any size, any sector and anywhere, I can see more than fifty shades of green grass. I also see rigidity when I see it, and freedom when I see it.

Uniqueness is not a good idea as a point of departure, but it is excellent as aspirational destination. The difference is far from subtle. As a departure, you start by assuming the uniqueness and rest in its laurels. As a destination the question is not what is that makes us unique ( and we have to preserve it), but what will make us unique, more unique, dare I say, always unique?