“Pickle Makers probably think pickle-making makes the world go round.” — George Will
It’s human nature to appreciate ourselves and our contributions far more than we appreciate others. I know how difficult and important what I do is, but why do we need so many people in finance? Or engineering? OK, maybe it’s time consuming, but anybody can do it and it’s what I do that really leads to our success, and if my colleagues were smarter they’d understand that.
Of course it’s not just within organizations. It’s educators, businessmen, and journalists. It’s husbands and wives. George Will’s quote above was about politicians who are sure the universe revolves around them.
And it’s not that people overvalue their own contributions, at least not on an absolute level. It’s just that they undervalue other people’s contributions. This is one of many reasons why communism rarely (if ever) works, everybody thinks they’re giving more than they’re getting.
Some of my favorite moments in the company is when I watch people from one side of the company get a glimpse of the complexity of other people’s jobs. Last time I went to New York I met with some of the community leaders and was amazed again with all the things they’re doing. And then I got to participate in our interdepartmental meeting and see the meeting from their side. And when one of the engineers spoke, I realized that even if the details didn’t always make sense over the phone, that it was worthwhile just for the people in the US to grasp that the engineers in Jerusalem had just as much passion, commitment, creativity, and complexity in their jobs as the community leaders had in theirs. And a few weeks later one of the community leaders was in our Jerusalem office, and I loved watching the people in Jerusalem listening to this remarkable series of tasks that was going on that they didn’t really realize was happening.
My boss likes telling of how Steve Jobs described the two groups at Pixar. The story people who think you just buy technology. And the technology people who think that the story people just sat in rooms and brainstormed.
An interesting corrolarly is that in a good organization your people are erring on the side of perfectionism, not laziness. Your programmers will tend to overengineer. Your designers will overdesign. Your people in charge of performance, GUI, and back-end will each be sure that decisions must be made that focus on helping their respective areas, and they’ll be sure the company’s survival depends on those decisions. Your community will get overly protective. That is — they’ll understand their own needs but undervalue the other side of the argument.
Telling your people how great they are is good, but make sure you manage to also communicate the great work their teammates are doing. And make sure you recognize that you probably overestimate your relative contribution, by underestimating all the things your teammates are doing.