Shattering the Illusion of Uniqueness Bias in Leadership

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar September 24, 2023

“We are too small.”
“We are too big.”
“We are in retail.”
“We are in health care.”
“We are a non-profit.”
“We are in highly regulated industry.”

In short, “We are special.”

We have heard them all. These are all the excuses leaders of traditional companies use to avoid changing their (underperforming) organization.

Recently, I read the bestseller ‘How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors That Determine the Fate of Every Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration and Everything in Between’ by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner.

And I've got some thoughts.

Uniqueness bias

While reading the book, I realized that leaders who use such excuses commonly suffer from a behavioral bias called "uniqueness bias." That means that most leaders tend to view their organization as being unique. This also makes them often think they have little or nothing to learn from other, more progressive organizations.

The problem with this bias is that we tend to exaggerate how special we are. That is, we can all probably think of something that makes us and others special—no matter how "similar" we are.

And that is just why we all tend to fall for this uniqueness bias. We all have it. And that is a good thing. "It makes us love our kids," Flyvbjerg & Gardner argue.

Uniqueness bias

You're unique, just like everyone else

The authors also show that, in reality, things are different. They quote a brilliant phrase the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead supposedly told her students:

“You’re absolutely unique, just like everyone else.”

I realized that organizations are like that.

Sure, every organization is special. Just like Mead's students, even organizations that are ten a penny will have some aspects that make them special.

Maybe it's organizational design. Or its bureaucracy. Or its governance or ownership structure. Or its reward policies. Or its products. Or their location. Or its particular business environment. Or a combination of some of these factors.

Ultimately, all organizations will be able to find something that makes them different from others. Nobody has trouble understanding and accepting that.

The problem, however, is that due to their uniqueness bias, leaders tend to naturally look at their own organization in this rather limited way. They tend to exaggerate how special their own organization is. And in turn, this provides them with countless excuses not to learn from others.

Just because they think their case is special.

This is unfortunate, as it blinds leaders from seeing their organizations as how they really are.

Because let's face it. Most organizations are probably not that special. Unless you are organizing in a way nobody has ever done before—like creating VISA in the 1950s or a DAO in the 2000s—your organization is probably not all that special.

And that's fine!

“You’re absolutely unique, just like everyone else.” Margaret Mead, Cultural Anthropologist
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Overcome your uniqueness bias

So, the big challenge for any leader who aims to learn from others is to first overcome their uniqueness bias. And then start to learn from others—with an open mind.

If you cannot do that, then you will always (falsely) view your organization as being different from other organizations that you have nothing to learn from. And then you will never change.

In short, stop feeling special. And start learning.

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Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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