Why “We’re Different” Is an Expensive Sentence

Beware. The next time you hear “They don’t understand our business,” “It won’t work here,” or “That can’t happen to us,” you might be losing money.

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The following is an edited excerpt from the book Expensive Sentences: Debunking the Common Myths that Derail Decisions and Sabotage Success written by Jack Quarles. It is available on Amazon.


Did your mother tell you that you were special?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to pick on Mom, and of course you are special. You are a unique human being. There’s nobody else just like you.

Now that we have that settled, let’s consider some additional truths. You have to follow the rules just like everyone else, and the principles that apply to others also apply to you. In those ways, you really aren’t so special.

There’s a balance between the reality of being unique and the reality of being just like everybody else. When an individual loses this balance and believes that his uniqueness separates him from others, it causes problems ranging from mild self-absorption and denial to unbridled entitlement or narcissism.

The same dual reality faces teams. Each team is a collection of individuals, each of whom is unique. The team has specific strengths and assets by virtue of the people on the team and the way they work together. The team may face particular circumstances or challenges on the path to its goals.

Emphasizing a team’s uniqueness, however, can be a problem. Believing that “we’re different” often keeps a team looking inward instead of outward and means that standard rules don’t apply. It also can provide license to work inefficiently.

EXAMPLES OF "WE’RE DIFFERENT"

Most of us have seen challenges in the office when a person or team decides they are different:

  • A VP making an expensive purchase won’t follow policy and get three bids because she has special requirements.
  • A division at your company resists adopting the new enterprise software because "it doesn’t work for them."
  • A department won’t engage procurement in its vendor selection project because "our needs can’t be pinned down to a process."
  • A manager disregards the training he received from an outside consultant because "they don’t understand our industry."

These self-proclaimed exceptions can be financially costly and erode efficiency. They can also be pretty annoying to other team members, who may be tempted to say, “What’s wrong, buddy? You think you’re special?”

That brings us back to Mom.

THE PROS AND CONS OF BEING DIFFERENT

Mom was onto something. It’s not just that every person is worthy of value, though that is certainly true. Mom may have known that only by understanding uniqueness and embracing it could anyone offer their greatest contribution to the world.

The importance of differentiation has been documented extensively in business. Being different is a way to innovate, to be noticed, and to stand apart from competition. At the same time, there are some areas where it’s probably better to follow the herd.

When you last heard someone claim to be different, was the claim provided as justification? It might have been:

  • A reason not to adopt best practices or new technologies
  • Dismissal of an outside advice that could be useful
  • A defense of why something can’t get fixed or be improved
  • An excuse for lower-quality service
  • Reluctance to acknowledge a competitive threat

Any claims of “they don’t understand our business” or “it won’t work here” or “that can’t happen to us” are likely to correlate with a team that is slow to learn or that fears change. Those teams will probably be left behind.

CHANGE THE CONVERSATION

RESPONDING DIRECTLY TO EXPENSIVE SENTENCES

If perceived differences within your company or on your team are leading to dangerous defeatism or arrogance, you can change the conversation. Try adapting one of the scripts below:

  • "Does that difference matter to our CEO? Does it matter to the customer?"
  • "Yes, we are different. Let’s write down the top three ways in which we are different. Do you think we should be different in these ways? Why? Why not?"
  • "Do you think our number-one competitor would be different in the same way? Is it possible we could fall behind if we don’t change?"
  • "It’s OK if we’re different, but if this is the right thing to do, nothing should keep us from doing it."

GROUP CONVERSATION TOPICS

If the themes of being special or different repeatedly show up in your team conversations, it may be helpful to set aside some time to discuss several general topics:

  1. Are we better than other companies? Why? How?
  2. Are we expecting others (employees, vendors, customers) to behave differently than we’ve seen in the past?
  3. Are we seeing other people as they are, or as we want to see them?
  4. Do we think there are things we cannot do?

WATCH A WEBINAR RECORDING ON SMARTER DECISION-MAKING

In this 30-minute webinar, I'll identify three common traps that often sabotage decisions, especially those made in a team setting. you'll discover a surprisingly simple method to discern whether conventional wisdom that often guide our decisions are useful or toxic. You'll get practical steps to improve your decisions and help those around you do the same.

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The book Expensive Sentences is available in hardcover, audiobook, and ebook formats here.


Jack Quarles is the author of Amazon #1 bestsellers How Smart Companies Save Money and Same Side Selling (co-written with Ian Altman). He speaks to business and leadership groups throughout the US and internationally, and as an expense management professional has saved companies tens of millions of dollars. Jack has co-founded multiple startups and currently serves on two boards of directors. He received degrees from Yale University and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business. He lives in Toledo, Ohio where he enjoys his church, iced tea, guitar, basketball, and above all spending time with his wife and two daughters.


Jack Quarles: Founder of Buying Excellence and Author of "Expensive Sentences"
Jack is the author of Amazon #1 bestsellers How Smart Companies Save Money and Same Side Selling (co-written with Ian Altman). He speaks to business and leadership groups throughout the US and internationally, and as an expense management professional has saved companies tens of millions of dollars. Jack has co-founded multiple startups and currently serves on two boards of directors. He received degrees from Yale University and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business. He lives in Toledo, Ohio where he enjoys his church, iced tea, guitar, basketball, and above all spending time with his wife and two daughters.