Narcissism of Small Differences

Have you ever noticed how Canadians are immediately able to list in minute detail how we are NOT like Americans? Or Kiwis can explain how they are different from Aussies? I recently ran into Freud’s term, the narcissism of small differences. He coined this term in reference to two nations or ethnic groups living in close proximity, who exaggerate the differences between themselves to support and justify a national or ethnic identity. It has been used in modern times to refer to our need to be unique and special, in order to maintain a strong personal identity and differentiate from mass culture.

It occurred to me the other day that organizations often experience the narcissism of small differences.  Recently Twix (chocolate bar) has been running a hilarious spoof on the narcissism of small differences in corporations.

This same phenomenon occurs when organizations develop their strategies. When I work with nonprofit organizations I often ask them to think about what wouldn’t be done in their communities if their organization didn’t exist. They often point out a program that is virtually identical to one that is being offered by three or four other agencies in town. When I question this, the response is, “but we do it differently”.  I often hear this same focus on small differences when working with branding and marketing teams in the private sector.

As leaders, we need to avoid falling under the spell of the small difference, and to question it whenever we see it. The small difference can lull us into not seeing the changes in the environment, and result in disastrous strategic decisions. This is why leaders need to get out of their bubble and into the world where their constituency lives – talking to consumers, or clients, or donors or suppliers.  How do they see the world?  Do they see your organization as being so unique and different? Or are you really a part of the undifferentiated mass of organizations doing whatever you do? If they don’t see the differences that you do, perhaps you need to think about your strategy.


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