Leadership and Self Deception — getting out of the box


cover via Amazon
cover via Amazon

Leadership and Self Deception — getting out of the box by the Arbinger Institute is an interesting book that relays its messages through a narrative.  The main part of the book is a discussion among a new executive to a thriving organization and two senior executives and the founder.  It is an interesting way to introduce the concepts.  These are my takeaways from this thought-provoking book:

          1. Have empathy.  One of the core concepts is to treat people as people.  Being in the box – being self deceptive – you treat others as objects.  Being out of the box, you see people as human beings.  This idea doesn’t mean you don’t fire someone who isn’t right for a particular job; firing is a behavior and behaviors can be done in the box (seeing the other person as an object) or out of the box (seeing the other person as people).  One of characters says “Either I am seeing others straightforwardly as they are — as people like me who have needs and desires as legitimate as my own — or I’m not….One way, I experience myself as person among people. The other way I see myself as the person among objects.”
          2. Don’t let your expectations affect your view of someone’s actions.  One way of being in the box is having a view of a person or of the world and then fitting all the evidence to reinforce your view.  Because you consider someone to be sneaky, you fit each of their actions into your view of the world — you are not able to interpret actions objectively — you see them, not for what they are, but in a way to confirm your world view.  This reminds me of the concept of confirmation bias — people with strong opinions “twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want.”   People twist their view of the world to match their opinions.  It is the classic “What did  you expect from him/her?” type of comment.  If you expect someone to be a particular way, you view their actions in that way.  “we subconsciously begin to ignore or dismiss anything that threatens our world views, since we surround ourselves with people and information that confirm what we already think.”  Leadership and Self-Deception brings this bias to light and is a great reminder that we need to be conscious of these biases.
          3. When you betray your own sense of what you should do for another, you begin to see the world in a way that justifies your betrayal.  And that leads to blaming others, and viewing yourself as a victim. The classic example is two parents sleeping at night when they hear their baby cry; each parent is able to get up; each has a sense of what they should do; and both pretend to sleep. For both parents, the betrayal of what they should do leads them to seeing the world in a way that justified their pretending to be asleep:  they worked hard all day; they had important things to do the next day; they got up with the baby the night before, the other person was just pretending to be asleep so they wouldn’t have to get up, etc.  But the root cause was the self-betrayal; the failure to do what they thought they should.  The betrayal led to the view of the world that justified the betrayal.  This leads to a distorted view of reality:  “When I see the world in a self-justifying way, my view of reality is distorted.”
          4. Self-betrayal leads to self-deception.  When you engage in self-deception, you are in the box.  You exaggerate your own virtues, inflate others faults, and emphasize factors that support your self-deception.  When you betray your core values, you explain your betrayal through self-deception.  
          5. Being in the box leads others to be in the box.  By justifying your view of the world and acting and communicating accordingly, others will develop a view of you that causes them to be in the box. 

The book also provides guidance on what doesn’t get you out of the box and what will get you out of the box.  Getting out of the box may require questioning your own virtue — are others really as blameworthy as you may have thought.  Getting out of the box may involve some self-reflection and acknowledging one’s own faults or limitation.

Since reading the book, I’ve increasingly noticed when friends have a particular view of a person or the world and then explain various facts in a way to support their view.  I have a friend who is not particularly enamored with our President and sees everything the President does through the view that the President is bad.  He is in the box and uses every bit of information to reinforce his view of the world.  For me, the best part of the book is that it has led me to see the paradigms through which I, and others, view the world and how we support our views by fitting additional information into our preconceived notions.  More so than with many other books I’ve read, I’ve seen it’s lessons in my day-to-day life.


  • Nathan S. Gibson

    Nathan S. Gibson is an independent worker compliance business partner who provides expertise and creative solutions to enhance workforce flexibility and maintain compliance. He helps mitigate the risks associated with the misclassification of self-employed consultants, freelancers and independent contractors.

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