Skip to Content

American Workers Have a Hard Time Being Humble

productive workerproductive worker

Suppose someone asked you how much more productive you are than your average compatriot. What would you say?

Qualtrics, which works on customer relationship management for clients like GE, GM, FedEx, and Coca-Cola, recently asked 6,250 employees in 14 countries this question for a research project on global attitudes toward work. Never mind that U.S. productivity has been slipping lately. American workers are still far more likely than their peers abroad to show symptoms of what the report calls the “Lake Wobegon Effect,” after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town where all the children are above average.

It’s not that workers in other countries show no signs of this syndrome, which therapists call illusory superiority. Germans in the survey said they are about 5% more productive than their peers, and Canadians claim to be 7% more productive than the average Canadian. U.S. workers, though, take the cake. On average, Americans think they are 11% more productive than everyone around them.

Why? “Since the Recession, lots of employees are doing more with less, so they may be unconsciously comparing how much harder they’re working now than in the pre-Recession past,” says Mike Maughan, whose title at Qualtrics is head of global insights. He speculates that “Americans are thinking, ‘I’m giving my job 100%. I wonder if my neighbor is.’”

The humblest employees in the survey reside in Italy, where employees said they are only about 3% more productive than the average Italian. Perhaps that is because they also said that fewer than half (48%) of their hours at work are spent actually working, versus 72% in Germany and the Netherlands, 70% in France, and 68% in the U.S. and Canada.

The bright side of the Lake Wobegon Effect is that, in countries where it’s most prevalent, like the U.S. and Germany, people also report being happiest in their jobs. “By contrast, some of the countries where people rated their own productivity lowest also reported the lowest job satisfaction,” Maughan notes, which “suggests to us that feeling productive and engaged, as opposed to just showing up and going through the motions, leads to liking your job a lot more.”