The Destructive Power of Similarities

Have you ever been punished in your organization for an error that someone else did?  Usually these punishments aren’t personal (e.g., Joe gets a fine for Bob’s behavior), but are more subtle versions like Joe now has to follow a 10 page checklist because Bob messed up once.

Why do punishments like this one and others of its sort spread across our organizations?

I think they spread because of the destructive power of similarities.  Let me explain.

Someone wrote a paper decades ago about the ways scientists and engineers make judgments compared with the way executives and other decisions makers do things.  I’ve never read the paper, but I’ve often repeated this story, told in The Rickover Effect by Theodore Rockwell (pages 128-129 if you’re really interested):

“Well, this guy says that some people, particularly scientists–and I guess that would include engineers and most of us–we tend to see things in terms of similarities…

He picked up two partially filled water glasses and poured the fuller one into the other, to bring the levels about equal. He put them down in front of me and said, “You haven’t read the article yet.  Just tell me about these two glasses.”

“Well, they are physical objects, not an abstraction or an idea.  They are man-made. They are made of glass and contain water.  They…”

“Can’t you see any differences between them?”

I looked long and hard at the glasses and then said, “Well, nothing significant. This one seems to be a little fuller, maybe.”

“Believe it or not, I tried the test on the Boss.  He was amused, but he went along with it.  I asked him to describe the two glasses. ‘Which one?’ he asked.  I asked him to consider them together. ‘That’s ridiculous,’ he says. ‘One has a chip and the other doesn’t. One is fuller than the other.  One has a dirty fingerprint on it,’ and he went on and on.  I’ll have to admit, the article really helped me see why I was having so much trouble communicating with the Old Guy.”

Because Rockwell doesn’t provide any details on the paper I can’t check the authors claims, but I have attempted to test his conclusions.  My testing doesn’t suggest such a clear occupational line between similarities and differences people, but I have found that the differences people are much more rare than those who see the similarities.  The surplus of similarities people, unbalanced with differences people, create the destructive power.

When a similarities person looks at the behavior of Bob, they don’t see the special causes behind Bob’s error.  They see Bob as an employee, who holds a certain position and does a certain job.  When they then look to solutions, they assume that all people who are similar to Bob (i.e., all other employees in similar positions doing similar jobs) will make the same error, and they jump to the 10 page checklist.

Their similarities bias has truly destructive effects when topic of ethics or “right behavior” are involved because an error (blatant or accidental) by anyone of a similar group or class to you is likely to bring an assumption of unethical shame right upon you.  And, when the shame starts flying and the guilt kicks in, organizations shut down.

I see two ways to diffuse the destructive power of similarities:

1. Admit the existence of similarities and differences people.  You can quickly test people with props as simple as two pictures (you know those “Has anything changed?” two cartoons) or as complex as two water glasses.  As them to describe them and see which way they go: listing similarities or decrying differences.

2. Refuse to let similarities win when the differences are what matter most.  There are times to let people have their view of the world, even when it doesn’t seem quite right, but when whole classes of people are going to face real (the checklist) or implied (the shame/guilt attack) you must speak up.

We must not let the similarities wash away the important differences.

True to our driving change philosophy, the place to start is with yourself.  What are you?  A similarities gal or a differences guy?

I’d love to hear from you.  Post which one you are in the comments.  I’ll post what I am too.

For added fun, guess which one I am then check the comments.

4 thoughts on “The Destructive Power of Similarities”

  1. I’m a differences person all the way. Until I read the story about the water I could never really explain why I seemed to see the world differently from a lot of the others around me.

  2. Becky Swain-Eng

    I’m a differences person. I like to take a critical look at things and see how they vary. I have been “lumped into” certain categories professionally because of the behavior of past employees and had to really prove myself to them that I was different from the previous employees. It’s a challenge, but I like to push myself so it’s also fun.

  3. I’m definitely a differences person and even have “individualization” as one of my top strengths.

    Your description of someone who sees just similarities reminds me of Industrial Era management. People were thought of as tools and when you see things that way you don’t need to see differences. If you have a 1/2″ wrench and it breaks do you care that the next 1/2″ wrench is a different color… is slightly longer, prettier, uglier, etc. Nope. Any 1/2″ wrench will do.

    It’s with knowledge era thinking that we transform the way we think of people. The organization starts to need people more for what they know. The differences become more important and we even start to form teams based around those differences.

  4. I’m a difference person too. I think the lesson I learned was in making people understand I am not my brother or my sister. I am me.

    I like to use the story of Dad remodeling our home. He flipped the stairway to make room for a bathroom. The stairway still remained in the same space, it was just the landings that changed. That one change allowed him the space needed for a bathroom an old farmhouse we lived in was lacking. I seen many transformations in older homes Dad made growing up. What he taught me was to see things not as they are but as they can be.

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