The Lake Woebegon Office

We’re not always as smart as we think we are. So how do we save ourselves from dumb mistakes? Psychologists have some guidance.

Garrison Keillor described his fictitious town of Lake Woebegon as the place where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” This over-the-top description is an example of what psychologists call the illusory superiority cognitive bias. In fact, it is such a good example that this cognitive bias has also come to be known as the Lake Woebegon Effect: the natural human tendency to overestimate one’s own qualities and abilities.

The key here is that it is a natural human tendency. We all display this cognitive bias from time to time. The problem arises when we believe our own press and the bias becomes our default.

Is this YOUR office?

I once worked for an organization that took justifiable pride in its people. However, some folks there came to believe that we all were smarter (and maybe even better looking) than average. Unfortunately, when this illusory superiority bias took hold, we really believed that we knew best. As a result, we effectively became blind to other sources of information, insight, and truth.

It is precisely when we operate from this blindness that we get kicked in the tail by reality. Donald Rumsfeld famously told the world that the real problems came from not knowing what we do not know.

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

– Donald Rumsfeld

The other problem, of course, was that it was difficult to admit a lack of knowledge when working with a group of superior beings in a Lake Woebegon office. So we all spiraled down together in mutual ignorance.

What’s the Remedy?

Was there an alternative? Yes — but it required some honesty and some bravery. If you’re ready to step up and kick this cognitive bias to the curb, here are some things that you can do:

  • Even if you believe you understand something well, put yourself through the exercise of explaining it to yourself. Then try explaining it to someone else. These two actions should surface aspects of your understanding that require further work.
  • Ask others if they have any new information or insights regarding the topic.
  • Ask others if they have any new questions about the topic.

Say Buh-Bye to Lake Woebegon

Taken together, these actions should help you — both individually and as a team — shore up your knowledge and become more effective. When enough of you do this often enough, you’ll be able to slam the door shut on your former Lake Woebegon office.

Additional Resources

[Photo Credit: Janeb13]

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