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North Central Business Journal News

(July 2000 issue)

by Sandra Kay Neal, Ph.D.

     The Lake Wobegon Effect is the tendency of  most people to believe they are above average.  Obviously, that is impossible.  But when employees are asked to compare themselves with their co-workers, 90% will place themselves above average – the other 10% will acknowledge they are average.

      How does this happen?  It begins because people value what they do well.  They consider that whatever it is they do well is extremely important.  They will also notice that not everyone else can do what they do well.  So naturally, since what they do well is so important, they are more valuable than those who don’t do whatever it is as well.

      For instance, Pat always arrives on time; Chris tends to be 5 to 10 minutes tardy two or three times a week.  Pat’s productivity is relatively low; Chris’ productivity is exceptionally high.  If Pat and Chris are asked to evaluate their work, Pat will notice constant punctuality, take pride in constant punctuality, and consider that extremely important.  Pat will also notice that Chris is frequently tardy and because punctuality is extremely important, Pat will consider Chris to be a less valuable employee.  On the other hand, Chris will notice high productivity, take pride in high productivity, and consider that extremely important.  Chris will also notice that Pat has relatively low productivity and because productivity is extremely important, Chris will consider Pat to be a less valuable employee.

      In addition to people valuing what they do well, people also tend to devalue what they do not do well.  If they notice strengths that others have which they personally do not possess, they will not usually consider those strengths of much value.  For instance, Pat may notice that Chris SOMETIMES has a higher rate of productivity, but will not notice that it is consistently higher than Pat’s, nor see that as being of much real use.  Chris will acknowledge SOMETIMES being a little bit late, will probably not notice that Pat is always on time, and will see no real value in being punctual.

      Because of this Lake Wobegon Effect, employees are almost always surprised to discover during performance appraisals that their boss considers that they have areas which need to be improved.  They are expecting to be applauded for their great contribution to the company, and may feel slighted because their boss doesn’t appreciate how valuable their work is.  This is made worse if the boss’ strengths are the opposite of the employee’s.  Due to the Lake Wobegon Effect, the boss in this case may not even notice the strengths of the employee, or if those strengths are acknowledged, the boss won’t consider them extremely important.

      To avoid the impact of the Lake Wobegon Effect, bosses need to remember that their employees probably consider their work above average.  If they are not doing something the boss considers important, it is probably because it is an area of weakness for the employee and thus not valued highly.  Generic statements such as “punctuality is important” will not improve Chris’ punctuality.  Telling employees to improve productivity in a general sense will not encourage Pat to do so.  Instead, it is helpful to address the concern individually with the particular employee after first acknowledging whatever the strength is the employee takes pride in.  Once the employee knows that he or she is truly a valued employee whose contribution is important to the company, the boss can then tell the person about the weak area, stressing its equal importance to the strength area. 

Sandra Kay Neal holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has 19 years experience helping organizations solve human resource issues.  Her company, Synergistic Organizational Solutions, specializes in aiding small businesses.  Dr. Neal can be reached at sos_hr@localaccess.com.

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