Every so often a small yet simple idea from someone else gets lodged in my brain and changes the way I think about things. So it is with the concept from Sigmund Freud that crossed my path a few months ago: the narcissism of small differences.

What Freud observed was that when groups of people are confronted with other groups of people, there appears to be a human desire to be able to accentuate the minor differentiates. People who live closest together are the most likely to demonstrate such attention to minutiae.

Whilst this has been commonly used as an explanation as to why conflicts such as those found in Northern Ireland or the Middle East are so all-encompassing, I’m increasingly concluding that it’s one of the factors that leads to organisational conflict and dysfunction.

Take, for example, the support siloes found in many organisations: finance, HR, IT, facilities, legal and so on. To the rest of the organisation these groups, cost centres to a man and woman, look pretty similar (and yet in turn so very different because, well, Freud…)

But between those groups animosity prevails as the beancounters and the geeks and the “people people” and the rest spend their time making it terribly clear as to why they are different from one another. In my work around the concept of the Minimum Viable Workplace, one of the guiding principals has been that the support functions in organisations are a barrier to providing effective platforms on which people can work. The Narcissism of Small Differences further supports the concept. Labelling finance and IT and the rest as separate functions forces those people to spend their time bickering rather than providing coherent business services that meet employee needs.

It’s one of the reasons why I find the work that Patreon are doing so interesting: a Director of People Operations pulling the traditional functions together into a holistic group. Maybe it’s an idea that will catch on if only we can stop obsessing about what makes us different.

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