Rivalry, Self-Esteem, and Patterns of Learning Research by Tanya Menon
New research compares how learning occurs between internal and
People want to have positive views of themselves, and organize
much of their lives around maintaining, enhancing, and protecting
their self-esteem. By simply comparing oneself to more successful
rivals, one's self-esteem may become threatened. These comparisons
are particularly intense in the business world when rivals are
members of the same company-such as competitors for organizational
rewards and promotions-as opposed to rivals from other firms.
The subtleties of internal and external rivalry are the subject
of the new study "Tainted Knowledge vs. Tempting Knowledge"
by Tanya Menon, an assistant professor at the University of
Chicago Graduate School of Business, and Hoon-Seok Choi and
Leigh Thompson of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of
The study examines how these comparisons affect the way in
which people react to ideas that come from internal or external
rivals. Using four different surveys, the authors show that
employees engaged in internal competition often respond defensively
and tend to ignore the ideas of their rivals (i.e., they see
these ideas as tainted), while employees engaged in external
competition pay vigilant attention to ideas from outside the
organization (i.e., they find the ideas tempting).
"When people encounter ideas from within their organization
or from the marketplace, they are not objective judges of whether
those ideas are worthwhile," says Menon. "An idea
looks very different when coming from a rival within the same
company versus a rival at a competitor firm."
Copying vs. Benchmarking
One reason why managers evaluate internal and external ideas
differently is because of the attributions other people make
about the act of learning from those two sources.
In a business era that celebrates anything creative, novel,
or that demonstrates leadership, "borrowing" or "copying"
knowledge from internal colleagues is often not a career-enhancing
strategy. Employees may rightly fear that acknowledging the
superiority of an internal rival's ideas would display deference
and undermine their own status.
By contrast, the act of incorporating ideas from outside firms
is not seen as merely copying, but rather as vigilance, benchmarking,
and stealing the thunder of a competitor. An external threat
inflames fears about group survival, but does not elicit direct
and personal threats to one's competence or organizational status.
As a result, learning from an outside competitor can be much
less psychologically painful than learning from a colleague
who is a direct rival for promotions and other rewards.
Charting Threat and Affirmation
Menon, Choi, and Thompson base their findings on four surveys
comparing the dynamics of internal and external rivalry. M.B.A.
students who participated in the surveys were asked to write
about their own experiences with rivalry and rate their response
to a variety of scenarios. In addition, participants were asked
how much time and money they would devote to learning from a
rival and how likely they would be to use a rival's ideas.
The surveys examined two key responses of employees facing
internal or external rivals: 1) The threat that their rival's
knowledge provokes; and 2) The degree to which the employees
are willing to learn from their rival. The authors measured
the first issue by asking survey participants to rate their
emotional reactions after writing about the rival. They measured
the second issue by asking participants to allocate financial
resources and time to learning about particular ideas.
The authors find that internal rivalry is more personally threatening
to one's status than external rivalry. In contrast, external
rivalry is less threatening, presumably because it does not
evoke interpersonal comparisons and does not threaten one's
status in the firm.
Threat has different implications for learning in situations
of internal and external competition. The authors find that
the more an employee experiences threat from an internal rival,
the more he or she avoids that rival's knowledge. However, the
more employees experience threats from an external rival, the
more they pursue that rival's knowledge.
In their final survey, the authors considered how they might
alleviate or even reverse these patterns. They did so by giving
participants an opportunity for self-affirmation by asking them
to write a few sentences describing a quality they valued about
themselves. The participants then evaluated ideas coming from
insiders or outsiders.
The survey results showed that this simple act of self-affirmation
reduced participants' defensiveness toward internal rivals,
and enabled them to acknowledge the ideas of their coworkers.
At the same time, the comfortable reassurance of self-affirmation
also made them feel safer and less motivated to seek ideas from
According to the authors, "The 'affirmed self' and the
'threatened self' construe learning through different lenses.
The threatened self sees learning from an internal rival as
a status risk, and the affirmed self is more secure in its status
and is able to learn more freely, despite these status costs.
The threatened self sees external learning as a matter of survival,
and the affirmed self sees this kind of learning as less crucial.
The self, in the process of maintaining, protecting, and affirming,
alters the meaning of the act of learning."
What Can Managers Do?
Menon, Choi, and Thompson's study highlights the difficulty
of creating and managing a learning organization. In particular,
they outline how psychological processes such as interpersonal
comparisons, ego-threat, and self-affirmation can affect the
ways decision makers assess the act of taking and using knowledge,
and consequently how knowledge flows through organizations and
The study also reveals some unintended consequences of incentives
in organizations. Interestingly, many organizations focus on
encouraging people to take risks and be creative-to be knowledge
creators. In the process, these incentives under-emphasize the
importance of employees acting as recipients of knowledge-as
The result is a bias toward knowledge from outsiders, such
as consultants or competitors, which can become very costly,
especially when identical knowledge is available internally.
Employees seeking ideas outside may be spending company resources
to further their individual careers, rather than for the good
of the company as a whole.
"The originator of the idea deserves credit, but so does
the coworker who felt comfortable and confident enough to learn
from a peer rather than going outside the organization and reinventing
the wheel," says Menon.
Tanya Menon is assistant professor of behavioral science
at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.