Illusory Superiority: The Lake Wobegon Effect

January 23, 2015 Association InsightsEmotional IntelligencePeer Powered PerformanceSocial Smarts  No comments

Lake Wobegon Effect

Prompted by the article from NonProfit Times When Board Members Just Don’t Get It my wife shared (she is the brains) I was inspired to add my own thoughts for the purpose of understanding the power of humor in revealing our illusions.  Who better to fill our hearts with laughter while challenging our minds to wonder than Garrison Keillor.

Most of us can imagine his melodic voice as he lovingly describes his mythical hometown as a place “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

We enjoy the simple engaging humor, unless we are sociologists who recognize this as just one of almost 100 tendencies toward self-deception called The Lake Wobegon Effect.

This Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others.”  Also called the above average effect.  In boards it is anything but funny; creating a belief, altering Keillor’s phrase just slightly, in a (process) “that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve”

So the question is why, as revealed in research published by Dan Ariely, is this predilection for self-deception particularly prevalent in the non-profit sector?  I believe the answer is revealed in the first line of the article that inspired these insights.  Mr. McLaughlin, begins by rhetorically asking “How can this be written diplomatically”. 

Is it possible that our desire for collegiality undermines productivity?  To answer this question I looked at the definition of diplomacy.  [dih-ploh-muh-see] 3: “skill in managing negotiations, handling people, etc., so that there is little or no ill will; tact:”  Seating one’s dinner guests often calls for considerable diplomacy.[i]

I personally don’t like to be “managed”, “handled”, and “ill will” indicates an elevation of the ego counterproductive to any interaction. 

If we were playing Jeopardy and the clues were being adept at managing, handling and avoiding the ill will of others, the answer might be “What is dishonest, deceptive, or deceitful”.  Now multiply that by 7, 8, 12 or 18 diplomatically inclined board members, add in the committee members, suppliers, supporters, sponsors all jockeying for their proper seat at the table, and it is no wonder we wander. 

If we are going to behave in a politically proper fashion it is far safer to appear productive and avoid ruffling feathers than it is to actually think more, care more and do more for the members than we do for ourselves.    We need to establish systems that eliminate as much of the feather fluffing as possible.  (Feathers being egos in case I was being too obtuse in my metaphors)

The point is any leadership group like the experts in any great kitchen must put the success of the meal over the fear of ruffling feathers.  Mr. McLaughlin reassures readers that “A good board member selection process and continual self-education will fix this problem over time.” I think this is a very safe sensible suggestion.  Who can argue that continual education over time is not helpful but can you AFFORD to SPEND inordinate amounts of time that are irreplaceable? 

We have been in the association industry for 16 years.  I have personally been an educator and manager for my entire working career.  I believe the short tenure and desire for boards to “get along” make “Lake Wobegon boards” impervious to education alone.  If you want to change the culture you must, as Gary Hammel so adeptly describes it, address both ideology and architecture.  Ideologies can change over time but changes in architecture can be implemented immediately.

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