Recent research compares how learning occurs between internal and external rivals.
What factors affect an employee's responsiveness to new ideas?
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 recent study "Tainted Knowledge vs. Tempting Knowledge"
by University of Chicago Graduate School of Business professor
Tanya Menon, Hoon-Seok Choi of the University of Ottawa's
School of Management, and Leigh Thompson of Northwestern University's
Kellogg School of Management.
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
Charting Threat and Affirmation
Menon, Choi, and Thompson base their findings on four surveys
comparing the dynamics of internal and external rivalry. MBA
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
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
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
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 underemphasize
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 companyas a whole.
"The originator of the idea deserves credit, but so does
the co-worker who felt comfortable and confident enough to
learn from a peer rather than going outside the organization
and reinventing the wheel," says Menon.