Lake Wobegon at Work

By Tom Davidson

As if there weren’t enough external threats to your business and your job, here’s an internal one you might not have recognized because of its slow emergence. It’s the Lake-Wobegon Syndrome, and you might have caught the virus yourself.

“Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” – Garrison Keeler

While it may be a fictional town in Garrison Keeler’s A Prairie Home Companion, Lake Wobegon has become the strange new reality in the workplace, where young managers often believe themselves to be “above average,” long before they’ve earned the rating.

For example, I was recently giving some guidance to a manager in training that involved situational leadership, and the new manager objected to my recommendations, saying, “That’s not my management style.” What I thought to myself was, “Having never been a supervisor, where did you get one of those?” What I said out loud was, “What is your management style, and what are the pros and cons of that in this situation?”

Overconfidence is nothing new, but three trends have converged to make it more endemic and a bigger impediment to learning leadership.

    • Technology. Generations X and Y grew up with greater access to more sophisticated technologies, experiencing a great chasm with Baby Boomers and other older generations who were playing catch up at best. In this arena, our newer generation of employees and managers were smarter. Essential technologies were endemic to them as children, and their intuition for how to use them was second nature, timesaving and productive. The erroneous assumption that went unchallenged was that since they were smarter in this regard, they must be smarter in other ways as well.
  • Self-esteem parenting. As the little yellow signs first appeared in car windows, reading, “Baby on Board,” so began the overly indulgent, super supportive parenting that become soccer Moms and helicopter parents. The surge of students in gifted and talented programs and need to reward everyone with participation trophies contributed to a generation of new managers who believe themselves to be superstars even before taking the field.
  • Strengths-based leadership theory. Founded to a large extent by Donald O. Clifton and exploded into an empire by the Gallup Organization, followers believe that focusing on developing one’s strengths is more productive in the long run than spending time developing one’s weaknesses. Dr. Clifton advocated for a balanced approach to development, but the popular take has been to focus on strengths and minimize weaknesses.

What can be done?
People with the Lake-Wobegon Syndrome aren’t learning fast enough. There is nothing wrong with these trends, but they’re collective impact is something all leaders need to cope with.

In addition to doing the basics well, that includes setting clear expectations, having a fair evaluation system, training people in the art of motivation and proper feedback, there is one more thing you can do.

Create a learning organization.
Role model learning. Admit mistakes. Tell people what you’re still learning and how. Ask people what they have learned recently rather than what they accomplished. Ask for feedback frequently and share the results.

The only way to beat the Lake-Wobegon Syndrome is to create a culture of your own where people are always honest about their strengths and weaknesses, always learning, and always getting better.

Share this article