LEADERSHIP AND SELF-DECEPTION
By The Arbinger Institute
It is seldom that I push a book on others, but this one is an exception. I believe that everyone needs to read this book. It explains a dynamic of human relationships that will be extremely valuable to anyone who relates to other people. Unless one is a hermit or stranded alone on a desert island, one needs to understand the principles in this book.
Besides, it is an easy and enjoyable read. The principles are presented in the context of a story based on actual experiences encountered by the Arbinger Institute, although it does not represent any specific individual or company. Tom Callum has recently been hired as a senior manager at the Zagrum Company. The story is told through Tom speaking in the first person and describes a one-on-one meeting with the executive vice-president, Bud Jefferson. During the meeting, Zagrum’s president and former president both drop in to reinforce what Bud is teaching Tom.
Bud introduces the discussion by telling Tom that he has a problem of which everyone in his life is aware except him. Tom is stunned, but Bud goes on to explain that he too has the same problem: self-deception arising from self-betrayal. As Bud puts it, “Self-betrayal is the germ that creates the disease of self-deception.” He illustrates self-betrayal by telling the story of squelching the impulse to get up and attend to a crying infant at 1:00 AM so that his wife could sleep. Instead, he pretended to be asleep and “out waited” her until she got up and took care of the baby. This self-betrayal led to self-deception wherein he began to inflate his wife’s faults and maximize his own virtue. He says:
“The truth is, her faults seemed relevant to whether I should help her only after I failed to help her. I focused on and inflated her faults when I needed to feel justified for mine. Having betrayed myself, the truth was just the opposite of what I thought it was.”
In other words, when I betray myself by failing to do what I know that I should do for another person, I enter the box of self-deception. I start to justify myself, seeing myself as a victim, as hardworking, important, fair, generous, as a good husband and father, etc. I start to see the other person as lazy, inconsiderate, unappreciative, insensitive, unfair, etc. I inflate the other person’s faults and my own virtue, justifying myself and blaming the other person. This process can be summarized in the following seven points:
These points introduce a key metaphor of the book, the idea of being “in the box” of self-deception. In the box, I see myself and others in a systematically distorted way – others are mere objects. They are seen as threats or obstacles to obtaining what I want and/or need. When I am out of the box of self-deception, on the other hand, I see myself and other more or less as we are – as persons with hopes, desires, fears, etc. just like me. Bud puts it this way:
“There’s something deeper than behavior that determines our influence on others – it’s whether we’re in or out of the box…when we’re in the box, 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…People respond not primarily to what you do but to how you’re being – whether you’re in or out of the box toward them.”
Tom raises the objection that all this seems too “touchy-feely” for the world of business, where people are paid to get results. Bud responds:
“When we’re in the box, we can’t focus on results. We’re too busy focusing on ourselves instead. Even most of the people you’ve encountered in your careers who you think are results-focused really aren’t. They value results primarily for the purpose of creating or sustaining their own stellar reputations. And you can tell, because they generally don’t feel that other people’s results are as important as their own.”
This brings to mind the “z-axis” that often comes into play. Leadership is often represented on a grid, where the y-axis is commitment to accomplishing the mission or getting results, and the x-axis is looking out for the welfare of the people under one’s authority. In reality, however, there is often a z-axis which represents career ambitions. Leaders often use both the mission and the people under their authority as means to accomplish the end of advancing their careers. In other words, neither the mission nor the people are as important to these leaders as advancing their own careers. When that happens, we are “in the box”.
Furthermore, people can accurately sense whether or not we are “in the box” when we are dealing with them, no matter how cleverly we can cover it up with management techniques. Furthermore, being in the box of self-deception provokes others to be in the box” and to act in a way that justifies our feelings toward them:
“But notice, in that kind of a situation, it’s quite easy for me to get in the box too because the justification is so easy – the other guy’s a jerk! But remember, once I get in the box in response, I actually need the other guy to keep being a jerk so that I’ll remain justified in blaming him for being a jerk.”
So how do we get out of the box once we realize we are in it? The book lists six things that don’t work:
Some of these are counter-intuitive. Take communicating, for instance. What’s wrong with that? The fact is, “communicating” can be a means of manipulation of the other person when we are in the box. We need to get out of the box first and then communicate. We communicate because we are out of the box; we don’t get out of the box by communicating.
Changing my behavior also seems to be a strange thing to include in this list. One would think that this would be absolutely indispensable to getting out of the box of self-deception, but
“You can’t get out by continuing to focus on yourself-which is what you do when you try to change your behavior in the box…If being in or out of the box is something that’s deeper than behavior, do you suppose the key to getting out of the box will be a behavior?”
This is where it gets a bit tricky to explain, and I have no illusions that this summary/review will explain it adequately. You will have to read the book to understand it completely, but getting out of the box is primarily a change of mindset more than it is a change of behavior. That changed mindset will certainly influence my behavior, but changing my behavior will not necessarily change my mindset, and people can detect my true mindset, whatever my behavior. As the book says:
“In the moment I felt the keen desire to be out of the box for them, I was already out of the box toward them. In fact, that desire for them is to be out of the box toward them…We know in that moment what we need to do – we need to honor them as people. And in that moment – the moment I see another as a person, with needs, hopes, and worries as real and legitimate as my own – I’m out of the box.”
Two other keys to getting out of the box are questioning my own virtue and seeing the hypocrisy of my anger toward others.
We stay out of the box by doing for others what we should do for them. This could seem overwhelming, but “being out of the box and seeing others as people doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly bombarded with troublesome obligations. That’s because the basic obligation I have as a person – which is to see others as they are, as people – is satisfied, in many cases, by the fundamental change in my way of being with others that happens when I get out of the box.”.
Although there are no overt Biblical references in the book, one can’t help but think of some of Jesus’ teachings. The point about treating other people as persons and not as objects is a clear application of the Golden Rule. Who wants to be treated as an object? Likewise, getting out of the box often involves applying Jesus’ teaching about getting the log out of my own eye before I try to help my brother get the splinter out of his eye.
The book concludes with a list of four things involved in knowing the material and eight things involved in living the material:
Knowing the material
Living the material
The astute reader will notice that I have violated #2 under “Living the Material” by using the vocabulary in this summary. As I said before, I have no illusions that this brief summary will enable you to understand these deceptively simple principles. You will have to read the book for yourself and then seek to apply the principles in your own life. I have read the book, but I have a long way to go in consistently applying the principles. Nevertheless, I have experienced the truth of some of these principles in my own life, even if I didn’t have the ability to explain them as articulately as does the book.
John Ed Robertson
August 4, 2006
The Arbinger Institute; Leadership and Self-Deception; Berrett-Koehler Publishers; San Francisco; 2000, 2002; ISBN-13:978-1-57675-174-9