The Personal Integrity Paradox and how it affects our sector

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Hi everyone. My plane is boarding for Aotearoa, so apologies for any errors or clumsy wording in this post.

When I was in high school, I took AP Psychology. A few weeks into the class, my teacher, Mr. Henderson, approached me to ask how I was doing in class. I said I didn’t think I was doing OK, that I was nervous about the AP exam, and that I was afraid I would fail it. He then told me that we would be learning about the Dunning-Kruger effect (DKE) and gave me a brief synopsis. (I did end up passing the exam with a 5, and Mr. Henderson, with his mustache, piercing insights, and gentle sense of humor would end up becoming one of the most important mentors in my life; he advised me that a career in psychology may not pay very well, so I took his words to heart and went into the lucrative field of nonprofit.)

The Dunning-Kruger effect is basically this (though I’m paraphrasing a bit): People with lower skills, knowledge, and expertise tend to overestimate themselves, while those who are more skilled, knowledgeable, etc., tend to underestimate themselves. Some of this is hypothesized to be because incompetent people may be too incompetent to recognize that they are incompetent, while competent people are competent enough to realize they may not yet know everything and still need to learn and improve.

There are valid criticisms about DKE. Still, I think it does provide some lessons, and extends beyond skills and knowledge and into integrity, morals, dedication, compassion, etc., so I am going to talk about a Dunning-Kruger-related phenomenon that I’m calling the Personal Integrity Paradox (PIP, first mentioned here). Basically, those with integrity will more often doubt themselves, and the reverse is also often true. We see it all over society. Parents who really care about their kids and who want to be good parents tend to have anxiety about whether they are good parents; crappy parents generally think they’re amazing. Teachers who are great may doubt themselves constantly, while teachers who are terrible are more likely to think they’re awesome. Recently, we see it a lot in politics, where some of the most racist, hateful, corrupt politicians have no self-doubts whatsoever and go full-steam ahead with everything they do and say, while those who believe in equity and democracy are often mired in doubt.

In our sector, it manifests in certain ways:

Boards: Boards and board members that are great (supportive of the staff, focused on being equitable, not micromanaging, etc.) are more likely to think they’re doing poorly, and perhaps rate themselves lower on evaluation forms. Boards that suck—and there are quite a few in our sector—think they are doing everything right. They rate themselves high on evaluation surveys and are often self-congratulatory.

Staff: Team members who are brilliant are less likely to think they are. They more likely have self-doubt. Because of that, they may not volunteer to take on as many leadership roles, and their self-evaluation responses may be less generous. Team members who aren’t as effective sometimes are the opposite: They can more likely be confident, self-assured, etc., and they are more likely to give themselves high marks on self-evaluations.

Donors: Donors that are helpful often don’t make much of a fuss. They don’t expect to be treated with deference or to be constantly groveled at. They always wonder if they’re helping or hurting nonprofits with their presence. They don’t assume their success in other sectors translate to nonprofit. Awful donors, on the other hand, probably think they’re awesome donors and never consider how their behaviors may be affecting the organizations they give to. 

Funders: The best funders constantly worry about whether they are being good partners, or whether they’re being too demanding or burdensome. They don’t like taking the limelight away from their grantees and rarely broadcast the cool things they are doing or try to attract attention to themselves. Less effective, or downright crappy, funders, meanwhile, may genuinely believe they are among the good ones and that they’re doing everything right. They are more likely to write about their work, be on panels, etc.

Allies: The allies, such as white allies, who are the most helpful to marginalized people are the ones that constantly doubt whether they are helpful. The people we are fear and dread most are the ones who believe they truly understand equity. Basically, truly woke people don’t say they are woke, and those who are the least woke often proudly declare that they are woke.

Of course, these are just patterns and likelihoods; they are not guarantees. There are plenty of amazing people and organizations who also have healthy confidence and accurate perceptions of themselves; often because they may have had to work through layers of self-doubts and being dismissed by society over the years. Many people of color, disabled people, LGBTQIA+, women, etc., have had to project a stronger confidence and presence simply to not be ignored or mistreated by those with more power and influence.

But I do see this pattern quite a bit in our sector, and it’s important for us to get an understanding of how it may affect our work. Self-doubt can play an important role for growth and progress. Those who are so sure of themselves and have the arrogance to believe they are perfect have less incentive to learn, to check for quality, and to improve. Boards that think they’re not doing such a good job are more likely to discuss how they can improve and take actions. Colleagues who believe they may not be the best allies are more likely to listen and learn from those who are most affected by inequity. Funders who doubt whether they are helpful partners to their grantees will more likely seek out feedback and implement the suggestions they receive.

And this can often backfire if we don’t understand these dynamics. Supervisors may pay more attention to and reward those who seem more confident, while ignoring or looking down on team members who are more effective but who express more self-doubts and who give themselves lower marks on self-evaluations. Funders and donors may give more funding to organizations whose staff paint a rosy picture, while freaking out at organizations who are more honest about their challenges and mistakes.

Race, gender, disability, etc. again, also come into play. White, male, non-disabled, formally educated, and neurotypical colleagues in particular, and the organizations led by leaders with these identities, tend to be more confident or tend to be perceived to be more confident, when they may in many situations be less competent and effective. We joke a lot about having “the confidence of a mediocre white man,” but this phenomenon is based in reality and human psychology and is pervasive.

These dynamics affect the entire sector. For example, because good funders are more humble and less likely to think they are good, they tend to remain quiet. Which means that less effective funders dominate the conversations and proliferate bad ideas like restricted funding, one-year grants, 5% minimum payout rates, avoidance of funding advocacy, etc. Effective funders’ humility and modesty in this case means a tacit approval of, and thus a continuation of, philanthropy’s many ineffective or harmful practices.

All of us should seriously be aware of this phenomenon and how it manifests in our sector. If you are a supervisor, board member, and others in positions of power, examine how this has played out in how you interact with those you have formal and informal power over. If you and your org or foundation seem confident, examine whether that is valid or whether you are overestimating yourself and your institution. Reflect how your race, gender, and other privileges influence your perceptions.

On the other hand, if you’re often full of doubt about yourself or your organization or foundation’s work, maybe take it as a sign that you are doing some things right. And possibly reflect on the need for you to be bolder and more assertive. Being loud may be outside your comfort zone, but for the sake of our sector, and of the world, we need you to be to counter all the bad ideas and actions from less competent but more confident people and institutions.