Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Exceptionalism

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Did you ever notice how perfectly the morning sunlight streams through the kitchen window? Or how the positioning of the house allows for gorgeous winter water views? Or how the crackling fireplace creates such a perfect atmosphere in the family room? An owner who has spent years living in a house typically knows each and every one of its strengths and views them as something special or exceptional. They put added value on the house due to those characteristics. (They also know the house’s short-comings but often overlook them).  Each person sees this added value in their own house. After all, if it weren’t special or exceptional, what would it say about me for living there? (Cognitive dissonance). As I continue to invest my time and resources in improving my house, from my perspective, my beliefs and values about my house simply become stronger (Sunk Costs). And with limited house owning experience some assume that it just couldn’t get much better than their own house (WYSIATI – what you see or experience is all there is). If and when they go to sell the house they put that perceived exceptionalism into the price tag and then wonder why the house does not sell. They wonder why others don’t perceive the exceptionalism that they do, why others don’t value the things they themselves value (see Organizational Rainbows Cast no Shadows). They are baffled and when they have to lower their price (the value they perceive in the house), they can get angry. Real estate agents serve a useful purpose as a buffer between a buyer who does not perceive the same exceptionalism and the seller who wants to say, “Why don’t you understand”?

The house example above is both real and metaphor. These principles cause people to see exceptionalism in many of their activities, beliefs and convictions. They do not simply apply to what you own, but also to actions you take, where you work, the religion you belong to, the college or university you attended, the person you married, the country you live in and political system by which you are governed.  But before I am accused of painting with too broad of a brush, it is quite clear that there are plenty of times where people can break out of this pattern, discard or change their own values and see the value, or be convinced of the value that others are seeing in an object, belief system, governance structure, investment etc. Just look at how attractive gold is to most people. Gold in and of itself has limited value, you can’t eat it, drink it, breath it. It does not impart health or wisdom to those who hold it or wear it. Its value comes from the combination of its rarity and desirability, a desirability that shows up as a commonly held value. The same could be said of other objects of limited day-to-day usefulness, but that generally are seen as being of high value – artwork, antique cars and other rare objects are often tagged with the phrase exceptional, and we are attracted to things that are rare as it makes us feel special to be in possession of them.

Describing how humans fall under the spell of exceptionalism as a construct is not meant to imply that there is no right or wrong, moral or amoral, good or evil, that there are only points of view. The notion that there are only points of view is a cop out for there certainly are social structures and social norms, governance systems and other conventions that humans apply to other humans that are abhorrent. Systems that keep some in poverty with a lack of opportunity, that subjugate or do not create equality are systems that need to change. Understanding the psychology that makes it more difficult to change them can help enable the needed change.

 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 16, 2016 at 8:45 am

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