Lake Wobegon?

Michael Metzger

Most companies view their corporate culture as above average. That’s reminiscent of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, where all the kids are above average.

Lake Wobegon was conjured up by Garrison Keillor for his radio show A Prairie Home Companion. He says the name for the Minnesota town comes from a fictional old Indian word meaning “the place where we waited all day in the rain [for you].” In his witty way, Keillor describes a town that’s warm but beset by a woe worse than rainy weather.

Lake Wobegon has an inflated view of itself. Every week, Keillor closes his monologue with, “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” David Guy Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan, calls this the Lake Wobegon effect.

Combining insights from psychology and scripture, Myers notes our tendency to overestimate our capabilities. The problem is conscience. It’s God’s gift to make us self-aware. But with the fall, conscience can blind us, rendering us unaware of ourselves. We then self-report success. Jeremiah warned against this (Jer. 17:7-9). We end up thinking too highly of ourselves. The Apostle Paul warned against this (Rom. 12:3).

This lack of awareness is found in corporate cultures. Years ago, a team of researchers led by the Stanford professor Joanne Martin analyzed the stories people told about their workplaces. They discovered an organizational uniqueness bias: People think their cultures are more distinctive than they really are. Across the boards, the research team discovered that workers report how their institution “is unlike any other.”1

Like the kids in Lake Wobegon, this can’t be. While there might be some unique elements in a culture—insider jokes, unusual jargon, offices decorated in unconventional ways—M.I.T. professor Edgar H. Schein says these do not primarily make cultures.2 Cultures are not what people self-report but what they show through their actions. And most of our actions are what Pixar CEO Ed Catmull calls “the Hidden.”

In his book Creativity Inc., Catmull detailed the importance of seeking out what he dubbed “the Hidden”—the 60 percent of corporate culture that leaders typically don’t see. It’s “the universe of all that you do not and cannot know,” a vast world “far larger than we are even conscious of.” Discovering these unknowns “becomes even harder when we are successful, because success convinces us we are doing things the right way.”

Brad Bird, hired to direct Pixar’s The Incredibles, discovered this firsthand. “Any company that had four hits in a row would not be open to changing anything. This place was the exact opposite. They were saying, look, we’ve had four hits in a row—we are in danger of repeating ourselves, of getting too satisfied.”

Pixar’s solution is their brain trust—a roundtable that includes outsider voices. These outsiders are often contrarians, playing devil’s advocate but keeping companies honest. Elizabeth MacBride described this dynamic in a recent Stanford Business School article, “Do You Have a Contrarian on Your Team?”3

Two giants of the philosophy of science, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, warned against overestimating success. For Popper, intellectual honesty means trying to refute, rather than prove, a theory about the world. Contrarians try to refute reigning assumptions. For Kuhn, science leaps forward when contradictions pile up and lead to the abandonment of a prevailing theory.4 In both cases, outsiders keep science honest and humble. It works the same way in business and ministries.

Cultural historian Gerald Nachmann observed that nothing fails like success. Whether companies and ministries rely on science or scripture, or both, they’d benefit from including outsiders. They highlight what’s hidden to insiders, helping company leaders see whether their cultures are indeed exemplary or simply another illustration of Lake Wobegon.

1 “The Uniqueness Paradox in Organizational Stories,” Joanne Martin, Martha S. Feldman, Mary Jo Hatch and Sim B. Sitkin, Administrative Science Quarterly (Vol. 28, No. 3, Organizational Culture, September, 1983), 438-453.
2 Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Third Edition (New York: Wiley Publishers, 2004).
3 Elizabeth MacBride, “Do You Have a Contrarian on Your Team?” Stanford Business School, November 13, 2015.
4 Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (New York: Crown, 2015).


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  1. This makes me think that the role Christians are playing in our present culture is that of “contrarian.” The pressure is to conform to the “world” but Jesus told us we would be blessed and to rejoice when people “revile you and say all manner of things against you falsely” for his Name’s sake.

  2. That’s hoping that the devil’s advocate has the company’s interests at heart. The key challenge being resonating with reality.

  3. Corporate leaders who don’t tolerate “naysayers” and surround themselves with so-called “team players” are likely fully aware that devil’s advocates have the company’s interests at heart. They won’t admit it, however, because they feel their personal power being threatened.

  4. Here’s the link to the MacBride article. Interestingly, MacBride emphasizes the importance of nonconfrontational contrarianism. The implication is that confrontational contrarianism does not yield the same positive results.

    I wonder if that’s really contrarianism, or just a more refined fact-finding process, leading to a more informed problem-solving approach? It’s one thing to be informed and then resolve the known issues. It’s another to uncover what is actually not known (or is falsely known) amongst a pile of things we assume we already know (per your reference to the “Hidden” in Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.

    “Unknowing” something would seem to require conflict and confrontation. Any worldview or paradigm shift tends to be a bit confrontational. . . .

    (says the contrarian in me 🙂 )

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