Leadership Self-Deception: The Lake Wobegon Effect

As a leader, how do you know when you’re engaging in self-deception and have an inflated sense of self-worth? And what are the consequences for leading others? (Image: rajcreationzs-freedigitalphotos.net)

In Garrison Keillor’s fictional community of Lake Wobegon, “The women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

As it turns out, this depiction is not limited to Lake Wobegon. One of the most documented findings in psychology is the average person’s ability to believe extremely flattering things about himself. We generally think that we possess a host of socially desirable traits and that we’re free of the most unattractive ones.

Most people — some high-achievers, more than others — deem themselves to be:

  • More intelligent than others
  • More fair-minded
  • Less prejudiced
  • Better drivers

I have to admit, that in my case, it’s actually true. Of course it is. Probably for you too. And the other day I was speaking to a room full of leaders and a show of hands indicated that 99% of them graduated in the top 5% of their class.

This phenomenon is so common that it is now known in social-science circles as the “Lake Wobegon Effect.” Because of this natural human tendency to see ourselves as above average, we fall into the self-deception trap.

The question remains what to do about it. While there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with high self-esteem, when it’s based on delusions, the amount of energy required to defend it creates problems.

When Everyone’s Above Average

The vast majority of people attribute their successes to themselves and their failures to external circumstances. This self-serving bias is a feeble attempt to positively reinforce our sense of worthiness and self-esteem.

We all do it, and it occurs subconsciously – we aren’t aware, and so we deny it. In the work I do with executives, we spend time uncovering and discovering the ways a leader can fall into the traps of self deception.

It’s not just a matter of believing what we want to believe. Such flights of fantasy are reined in by real-world experiences and our need to perceive them accurately (when we can). Our motivations drive us to subtly process information relevant to a given belief. We collude with our subconscious to cherry-pick information that supports our self-image.

Responding to questionnaires, we’re an overconfident species. A survey of 1 million high-school seniors found:

  • Seventy percent thought they were above average in leadership ability.
  • Only 2% thought they were generally below average.
  • Sixty percent thought they were in the top 10%.
  • Approximately 25% thought they were in the top 1%.

A survey of university professors found that 94% thought they were better at their jobs than colleagues.

While confidence and a fair view of one’s capabilities and strengths are essential, overconfidence and an elevated sense of worth lead to fragile relationships. When we focus on proving ourselves, we spend far too much time on defending and justifying our behavior. We cut ourselves off from opportunities to understand our colleagues. Our ego prevents us from communicating an interest in others. In other words, we lack empathy.

Our preferred perceptions and opinions lead us to test hypotheses that are slanted toward our chosen direction. By consulting the “right” people, we increase our chances of hearing what we want to hear.

We’re not consciously distorting information, but we have considerable opportunities to jiggle various criteria and arrive at conclusions that favor our biases. We slyly assign meanings to information, finding creative ways to frame it so we achieve comforting, ego-pleasing conclusions.

What are your thoughts about this? Maybe you’ve worked for someone who had a self-serving bias? I’d love to hear from you.

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