In Conversation with Nilofer Merchant


In her interaction with Kirstin Ferguson, Nilofer Merchant introduces the reader to the concept of Onlyness as not just our identity and experience but also what we can grow into.

Introduction to Onlyness

Each of us stands in a spot in the world where only one stands and from that spot is how each of us adds value to the world. This is called onlyness. It can be defined as the source of ideas, the power we each have based on that spot in the world. It is different from being unique, because it does not mean that one has to be different from anyone else. We simply have to be ourselves, and someone living out of their onlyness can be a part of a larger solution.  

The word ‘onlyness’ was coined while thinking about how we quite often listen to the same group of people. Sometimes it is the loudest person in the room, sometimes it is someone who thinks that it is their job to have the answer and they don’t know how to live in a state of questioning, and sometimes it is that we feel like we do not have anything to offer, which is partly due to conditioning. We have been told a bunch of times in our lives that we do not really know anything and that our role is to only execute. 

Many complex problems in businesses become difficult to solve when only a few people are heard. The solution is typically in the business, in the people who were not being heard, who were either suppressed by themselves or oppressed by other people. The purpose of onlyness is to center correctly on the source of all value creation and to recognize that each of us has some bit of value to add. It could either be in coming up with an original idea or making an original idea better, and together shaping something much better that can ultimately go out into the marketplace. 

Each of us has something of value to add because of the perspective, experience and knowledge we bring to the table. The idea of onlyness is to therefore recognize that each of us has a story, even if it is imperfect, even if it does not fit some role model or idea of what we have been sold by the media. A quote by Leonard Cohen relates to this idea, “Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Onlyness is a celebration of every part of you, even those things that are not perfect. 

Onlyness is not limited to everything that has happened to you, but is also about what you imagine is possible. It is both what we are rooted in, in terms of history and experience and what we grow towards. In this sense, it is future-forward. 

The purpose of onlyness is to center correctly on the source of all value creation and to recognize that each of us has some bit of value to add.

Kirstin Ferguson: Do you think the external influences are going to change what defines us or how we see what defines us, how we operate and how we value these individuals?

Nilofer Merchant: We really can feel off-center when the world feels like it is shaking. When we watch our friends work hard in their jobs and other friends lose employment and feel lost and question their value in the world, it can decenter us if we don’t know how to stay grounded in the truth, that no matter what is happening around us, we have a set of gifts and capacities to add value.

Kirstin Ferguson: Is there anything specific to industries like professional services, education or financial services that makes the idea of onlyness any more important or challenging than others? How do you recommend people in those industries find their crowd to help incubate ideas?

Nilofer Merchant: To begin with the notion of finding our crowd, sometimes we think about our crowd by vocational association, meaning we identify ourselves in terms of our vocation, or sometimes by how we are treated by society. Sometimes we can identify by our vertical identity meaning the race, gender and age in which we are born. then, there is horizontal interest. This explains the Monday morning meetings where people talk about football scores and identify in this very particular way. All these identities are the different ways in which we can belong to the world, and we choose people based on such affinity groups. 

Onlyness is to say what is it we care about, which is its own way of centering. It is a place that is not about what anybody else says about us, but what we ourselves can only do. It sounds individualistic but it is exactly the opposite. It is the way to reimagine work so that each person is counted to add value, even those that are typically dismissed because they lack the power place in society or the power place in an organization. We have an ability to connect based on that and to start working on programs and ideas together. Then we can certainly be united, but it also means each of us has to stake a claim first, and then we can decide who we are to one another.

Onlyness is not limited to everything that has happened to you, but is also about what you imagine is possible.

Kirstin Ferguson: What advice do you have for people who might be struggling to know what their unique or special contribution is?

Nilofer Merchant: The things that we are good at are sometimes not as obvious to us as it is to other people. It is as though we have a light above our head, and so when we walk into a room, the room is always that color for us because we cannot tell the difference when we walk in. Other people who see the room with or without us can offer a reflection back. Thus, being open to feedback and hearing other people’s perspectives on how they see you could be one place to start. 

Kirstin Ferguson: How can a person demonstrate their onlyness in an environment that might not welcome it?

Nilofer Merchant: Some leaders are in situations that are challenging and they have to come on with a certain persona, but that does not mean that they do not have people who have their back. So, the question is, do we know how to build our own group of people regardless of whether or not they are in that room? Our group of friends outside of work can help us process our world in a way that does not make us feel alone.

Back in the ‘70s, Rosabeth Moss Kanter was one of the first people that studied what it means to be “lonely only”. She said that those of us who are all alone will always feel watched. We will feel so self-conscious that we cannot do our best work, we will feel excluded and incapable of having a network of people in that room and we will be pressured to conform to the existing group norms of that room. Many offer advice like “Be brave” and “Lean in”, which is completely wrong, because what it implies is that our voice can overcome that social context. While there might be a small percentage of people for which that is true, it is actually not good advice. Better advice would be to say, know how to build a group of people to whom you do belong, so that they are invisibly with you at all times, so that you know the safe spot that you can go to and build that safety for yourself.

Kirstin Ferguson: What are some current examples of people stepping into their onlyness to reimagine the world of work right now, in this pandemic?

Nilofer Merchant: A friend of mine owns a little boutique hotel. The hospitality industry was hit extremely hard with the shelter-in-place work, and he knew there was no way they were going to be able to get back to work right away. He was already struggling in the business. He had to let all of his people go, so he sat down with all of his 15 staff members and asked them if they needed anything. One of the staff revealed that he was HIV positive, and that the city that they worked in let him get all the medicine for free on two conditions, that he was domiciled in the city and he was employed in the city. The CEO then got the relevant authorities on the phone, walked them through the scenario, and then said that if the provision could not be extended, he would personally pay him the minimum wage for the minimum number of hours to keep this person healthy. This is an example of a leader who sees the person, not the job or title, and makes an effort to stay involved. He also checked in with the other staff members three or four weeks after he had to lay them off, to see how they were holding up.

When we are seen as individuals, we are able to share the problems we are facing. Some people sheltering at home are going to be fine, but some are trying to figure out how to make rent or find a job, so we need social support that encourages us to share our problems, and then only we can get creative.

Every person is going to have a different set of perspectives on a given problem, so we need to come around that problem and use the problem as the organizing principle instead of roles and identities that can keep us separate.

Kirstin Ferguson: Do you have advice for anyone who is not naturally comfortable getting into conversations to get to this level of onlyness?

Nilofer Merchant: Onlyness is really just thinking about whatever level at which you can claim a part of yourself, and say that it is totally true to you. It is not necessarily tied to our purpose but can also be about quirkiness and perspectives, and ways in which we can bring talent.

Kirstin Ferguson: Can you address how budgeting needs to change in order to support the proposition that people are not costs, but drivers of value?

Nilofer Merchant: A lot of businesses right now did this. Microsoft broke a 40-year-long tradition in tech where they actually pay their hourly workers as they let people go, because they have never done that before in tech. A whole bunch of tech companies then followed suit. Usually, it is as though there are two tiers of workers. Right now, we should try to see how we can engage those people.  When it comes to hourly workers, businesses could say that it is not their responsibility to care for them, but there can be ways to engage workers. For example, it could be a great time to redesign the cafeteria at the office. Businesses need to reimagine their spaces to find ways to engage their hourly workers.

Kirstin Ferguson: What do you think would be the role of value creation in third world countries that lack innovation? How can value creation help to deliver a much better situation after the COVID crisis?

Nilofer Merchant: No place lacks innovation, but every place does have a different set of resources and a different set of solutions that they are going to need. With onlyness, what we are really saying is, how do we recognize every single person and how do we organize people around key questions? Regardless of what they look like regardless of what title they have, every single person has something of value to offer. 

Every person is going to have a different set of perspectives on a given problem, so we need to come around that problem and use the problem as the organizing principle instead of roles and identities that can keep us separate. We can then have people figure out possibilities and start idea generation, and so on.

Kirstin Ferguson: Any closing remarks you would like to share?

Right now, we have a chance to talk about what is a new social compact. None of us would have chosen this outcome, this condition for us to do that, so there is a sadness to that background as we reimagine what is possible. But out of everything, an opportunity has come out. For a long time, we have been saying we don’t have time, or that group’s health does not affect my health or a group is nonessential. Now, we can see that some of the things that we have seen as separate are actually not. We are joined together in solidarity, in problem-solving, to overcome this crisis. How we get out of this is a very different way than what got us into it. We can now connect in a true sense, by taking care of each other and start finding ways of bringing the very best of us forward.

I hope that the one thing we take forward in the social compact is this notion that we are never separate, that we are always together, that your health is my health, our Earth is one Earth, and that there is plenty of purpose that people can offer, and if we allow enough creativity in how we design our work processes, we can actually get more creative solutions at the table. There will surely be people who challenge us and says idea like these are to be saved for the good times, and that right now business is about numbers. All of us who are leaders need to remind everyone that it is the people who are going to build the numbers back up.

How we center correctly allows us to create the most amount of value. For the last hundred years or so, the premise has been that only a few people matter. They are the hero people and the rest of us are doers, and we should just accept strategy from them. We now have a chance to show all the evidence to the contrary, that we are deeply connected and we want to be deeply connected. Today, we understand that we are far more connected. We just need to bring that back into the workplace, and through the process of believing in one another, we can generate the ideas that will help us build what comes next.

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