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It is important for all of us to understand the ideas presented in this book by the Arbinger Institute. “Leadership and Self-Deception” is deceptively short and simple. Its ideas are deeply spiritual, powerfully effective, and absolutely fundamental to leadership in any arena.

To quote: “Arbinger is the ancient French spelling of the word “harbinger.” It means “one that indicates or foreshadows that is to come; a forerunner.” Arbinger is a forerunner, a “harbinger,” of change.” Indeed, neither personal nor institutional change is possible without following the precepts laid out in this wonderful book.

Self-deception touches every aspect of life – in fact, it determines our experience of life. It blinds us to:

– the effect we have on others
– a perception of others as they really are
– other corrective feedback from life.

When we only have distorted information about reality, we don’t have accurate information to make decisions. We don’t have accurate information with which to solve problems because we are in effect blind to the true causes of our problems. To the extent we are self-deceived, we are making mistakes.

The book defines self-deception as a kind of “insistent blindness.” This blindness puts us “in the box.” And when we are in the box not only do we not solve problems effectively, but also we actually create problems for ourselves and others. When we are in the box, we provoke people to resist us.

When we are in the box we have made “The Deep Choice” – THE CHOICE THAT OTHER PEOPLE’S NEEDS AND DESIRES ARE NOT AS IMPORTANT AS OUR OWN. Sometimes we make this choice consciously (I’m going to see how long I can keep her without giving her a raise), and sometimes it is an unconscious attitude we approach everyone with. It can also be called narcissism, entitlement, immaturity, greed, and snobbishness.

How do we know when we are in the box? Generally, it is when we are feeling some kind of negative emotion. When we are in the box we are insincere, or we feel angry or punishing, or we try to manipulate or “put up with” people. We are scornful, or suspicious, or judgmental. And guess what? People can tell, at least after awhile, how we really feel about them. Even when we employ the latest techniques or read up on leadership tips, as long as we don’t change the way we feel, people will know it and not respond to us.

So when we are in the box when we are relating to someone, we are creating a “people problem.” And because of self-deception, we don’t know that WE are the problem – we blame everyone and everything else.

This systematically incorrect view of reality is embedded in most of our institutions, our families, our “parenting skills”, our “human resources management.” No wonder our society can’t solve its problems! Can you think of an incident or an institution in our society that demonstrates being in the box and its ineffectiveness?

You have read about the deep choice you must make in order to be in the box, and about how it feels to be in the box. But how do you know when you have made that deep choice, because it is so often out of our awareness? You know it when you feel uncomfortable about something you have done or said. You know it when you act contrary to your sense of what is correct, appropriate, or ethical. You know it when you have BETRAYED yourself.

Here is a list of ideas about Self-Betrayal that I have taken directly from the book. As you think about these ideas see if you can identify with any of them. Next week we will discuss the collusion that can keep us all in our boxes. Remember, Self-Betrayal is the germ that creates the disease of Self-Deception. You could even say that the turnover rate in a company equals the mortality rate in a disease.

– An act contrary to what I feel I should do for another is called an act of Self-Betrayal.
– When I betray myself, I begin to see the world in a way that justifies my Self-Betrayal.
– When I see a self-justifying world, my view of reality becomes distorted.
– So – when I betray myself I enter the box.
– Over time, certain boxes become characteristic of me, and I carry them with me.
– By being in the box, I provoke others to be in the box.
– In the box, we invite mutual mistreatment and obtain mutual justification. WE COLLUDE IN GIVING EACH OTHER THE REASON TO STAY IN THE BOX.

Because most people are in the box most of the time, most of us are defensive (not to mention offensive!) most of the time. That defensiveness sets up a pattern of mutual blaming. For example:

You ask your sales manager to have the statistics on new clients for themonth ready by the first of the next month. On Thursday the 1st, no statistics are on your desk. The same is true on the 2nd. You email her and say, “I thought I asked you to have those statistics ready by the first of the month. I haven’t seen any. This is another report I have had to wait for from you.” She replies, “You asked me to attend that conference over the 30th and 31st, and I haven’t had time to get the statistics together yet. I can’t do everything at once.” You don’t appreciate her tone, and so on and so on.

You are both defensive and both blaming each other. You both feel justified in your attitudes and need to stay feeling justified, EVEN THOUGH IT IS NOT SOLVING THE PROBLEM. Your reaction to not having the report has not had the result you wanted – a completed report and a responsive sales manager. Her reaction to you has not created the response she wanted – understanding and perhaps an offer of help from her supervisor. Quite the opposite has happened.

Look at your behavior, and you see that your blaming email was not aimed at doing for her what she needed – it was simply acting out how you felt about it. She may have needed you to have a talk with her about frequently missing due dates, or an apology that you forgot she was out of town. You have betrayed yourself and created a “people problem’. You have made the “Deep Choice” that her needs are less important than your own. Now both of you are in the box!

You may want to reflect on what doing for people what they need really means. Here’s a hint: It doesn’t mean that you can’t expect top performance from them.

It’s very easy to get out of the box. You simply regret what you have done while in the box. Actually, when you start thinking that you want to be out of the box for people, you already are! It’s all very Zen. Wanting to do better automatically puts you in the frame of mind to do better. Recognizing that you have been seeing another person as less important as you immediately changes your attitude toward them.

It is for this reason that apologies were invented! Genuine regret expressed to another person not only automatically takes you out of the box, it very, very often takes them out of the box also. Theologians could go on at great length at this point in discussions about forgiveness and redemption and therapists could talk about mature self-definition but it all boils down to the same thing.

You accept and ACT as if you are not the only one in the universe.

It helps to stay out of the box if we focus on:

– Not trying to change others. (Others’ problems are not why you are in the box).
– Not resigning yourself to “cope” with others. (It’s disguised blaming).
– Not simply walking away from the situation. (It just moves your box).

Here is a checklist of things to think about as you carry out your leadership roles:

– Are you really focused on results, or on your own needs?
– Are you open or closed to correction?
– Do you always try to learn, and teach others when you can?
– Do you hold yourself fully accountable in work, or shift responsibility when things go wrong?
– Do you move quickly to solutions or take perverse delight in problems?
– Can you earn people’s trust?

Finally, always remember that it is progress, not perfection, you should be looking for.

This Business article was written by Mary Symmes on 2/11/2005

Mary Symmes is a professional coach and the founder of Alexandria, Virginia based Self-Investment Strategies. She can be reached via and 703-535-3221.
Her website is