Leadership and Self-Deception


See more book notes at www.davidmays.org  See Also Book Review at Actionable Books

The Arbinger Institute, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2000, 180 pp, ISBN 1-57675-174-0

The Arbinger Institute is a management training and consulting firm that helps organizations, families, and communities overcome the implications of self-deception.  This is another of those stories made up to demonstrate a principle. 

In this case the point is that when we fail to treat others well, we tend to overestimate our own virtue and justify it by finding fault with “them.”  We fail to focus on results because we are focusing on making ourselves look good at the expense of others.  This is a destructive self-reinforcing cycle to which the individual is blind.  The book intends to help individuals see themselves and thus stay out of “the box” of self-deception.

The principle is an important one, but the title had conjured in my mind a number of issues that could have been profitably addressed.

An individual “in the box” can’t see that the problem is theirs and, in that situation, no solution will work.  To the extent we are self-deceived, our leadership is undermined at every turn.  (Preface)

We are “in the box” when we feel we have to put up with people, when we see them as objects or problems rather than as people.  In the box we are cut off, closed up, blind, unable to see that we have the problem.  (14)  Such an individual resists the suggestion that he has a problem.  (16) 

Other people respond to us according to how they sense we feel about them. (24)  “We can always sense when we are being coped with, manipulated, or outsmarted.  We can always detect the hypocrisy.  We can always feel the blame concealed beneath veneers of niceness.  And we typically resent it.” (27) “No matter what we’re doing on the outside, people respond primarily to how we’re feeling about them on the inside.”  (31)

The goal is to develop a culture where people are simply invited to see others as people, vs. objects or problems. (39)  “If I’m not interested in knowing a person’s name, I’m probably not really interested in the person as a person.” (41) 

“People respond not primarily to what you do but to how you’re being… toward them.” (43)

When we’re in the box (of self deception), our view of reality is distorted – we see neither ourselves nor others clearly.  We are self-deceived.  And that creates all kinds of trouble for the people around us.” (48)

Imagine the baby cries in the night.  You feel you should get up but you don’t. As you lie there and listen you begin to wonder why your wife doesn’t get up. You begin to blame her and think her irresponsible.  Then you begin to think about how hard you work and how responsible you are.  You betray your own sense of how you should be toward another person.  The authors call that “self-betrayal.”  When we betray what we feel we should do for another person, we begin to blame the other person as part of our self-rationalization and justification.  [It seems to me more a betrayal of the other person, but the authors’ terminology is “self-betrayal.”]  (65)

“When I betray myself, I begin to see the world in a way that justifies my self-betrayal.”  I focus on the other person’s faults and inflate my own virtue.  My view of reality becomes distorted.  (That’s when I’m in the box.”)  (71, 75)

“Over time certain of these self-justifying images become characteristic of me.” (83)  “We end up carrying these self-justifying images with us into new situations…  We don’t see people straightforwardly, as people.  Rather, we see them in terms of the self-justifying images we’ve created.  If people act in ways that challenge the claim made by a self-justifying image, we see them as threats.”  (86)

Most people in the box are thinking, “I’m doing just about as well as you could expect under the circumstances.”  I feel justified in blaming others and they resent me for blaming them unjustly.  Pretty soon I’ve pushed them in the box too!  (92)

It’s not so much what I do (like being stern or soft), but the way I’ve been when I’ve done it. (96) 

“What I need most when I’m in the box is to feel justified.” (98)  That means I keep blaming others, giving them reasons to stay in the box too.  My box provokes problems in others.  (102-3)

“You can’t focus on results because in the box you’re focused on yourself.” (105)

When we are in the box we are blind to it.  We can’t see how we are blaming others, not for their mistakes, but for ours. (123)  A leader can pretty much kill his company by carrying the disease he blames others for.  “I infected them and then blamed them for the infection.” (124-5)

One gets out of the box when he sees people as people vs. objects.  (126)

What doesn’t get one out of the box: (136)

  • Trying to change others
  • Doing his best to cope with others
  • Leaving
  • Communicating
  • Implementing new skills or techniques
  • Changing behavior

You can’t get out of the box by continuing to focus on yourself.  (136)

“In the box, everything we think and feel is part of the lie of the box.  The truth is, we change in the moment we cease resisting what is outside our box—others.” “We need to honor them as people.”  You stay out of the box by doing for them what you feel like you should do. (141-5)

Assuming that my feeling is “to do my best to help the company and the people within it achieve results,” then I have a choice to honor it or betray it.  (151)

If I’m convinced that the other person really is to blame, then I must ask myself, “Does my blame help the other person get better?”  It never does.  (153)

“The leaders people choose to follow are the leaders who are out of the box.” (154)

Summary (165-66):

  • Self-betrayal leads to self-deception and ‘the box.’
  • When you’re in the box, you can’t focus on results.
  • Your influence and success will depend on being out of the box.
  • You get out of the box as you cease resisting other people.
  • Don’t try to be perfect.  Do try to be better.
  • Don’t use the vocabulary—“the box,”….
  • Don’t look for others’ boxes.  Do look for your own.
  • Don’t accuse others of being in the box.  Do try to stay out of the box yourself.
  • Don’t gigve up on yourself when you discover you’ve been in the box.  Do keep trying.
  • Don’t deny you’ve been in the box when you have been.  Do apologize, then just keep marching forward, trying to be more helpful to others in the future.
  • Don’t focus on what others are doing wrong.  Do focus on what you can do right to help.
  • Don’t worry whether others are helping you.  Do worry whether you are helping others.

Sounds a lot like the Golden Rule, doesn’t it?  DAVID MAYS