The Personal Integrity Paradox and how it affects our sector

Written by Vu Le

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. 

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.