Leadership and Self-Deception

— Getting out of the Box — 

News flash! We’re all fooling ourselves most of the time about how the world works and what we’re doing in relation to it. That’s not news, you say? Well, you still might be surprised about how the ‘fooling’ takes place, your role in it, the unexpected consequences, and what you can do to actually solve the problem. That’s where the story inside this book can help.

Leadership and Self-Deception is not a book that points fingers or attempts to make the ‘others’ in our lives wrong. In fact, the collective authorship takes great pains to be as gentle as possible in uncovering the layers, connections, and relationships involved in how we come by our attitudes and actions and how they affect others, whether or not we’re aware of it.

Written in story form instead of dusty bullet-points and theory, the narrative offers more depth than the Who-Moved-My-Cheese? parables of most management and leadership authors. Still, it’s an engagingly easy read. Yes, the setting is the workplace, but the real joy in this book comes from the acknowledgment of our wholeness as people, the fact that we can’t just leave home at home and work at work. While we know we have other interests, family life and community life often take it on the chin when workplaces demand 24/7 ownership of us. But our lives in one realm affect everything else we touch — and we can deceive ourselves equally well everywhere.

The idea of self-deception seems related to the concept of ‘secondary gain,’ which we may have experienced as an underlying issue in illness, teenage rebellion, or other surprising places. On the surface, refusing to cooperate with parents, remaining bed-ridden, or developing headaches, for example, may not make rational or logical sense. However, the primary — if unspoken or unacknowledged — need for attention, comfort, or dominance, despite being misguided, provides the underlying or secondary ‘gain’ from the ostensibly negative behavior. Consider what tremendous ramifications that implies for creativity, enthusiasm, performance, collaboration, harmony, and enjoyment, as well as for making productive and livable lives.

The Arbinger Institute, the book’s collective author, describes itself as “a management training and consulting firm and scholarly consortium that includes people trained in business, law, economics, philosophy, the family, education, and psychology.” They contend that the issue of self-deception, particularly as it applies to organizational leadership, has remained the purview of such specialists for too long. The goal with Leadership and Self-Deception (and with their other services, of course) is to get this information out into the world, in part, because it “touches every aspect of life. ‘Touches’ is perhaps too gentle a word to describe its influence. Self-deception actually determines one’s experience of every aspect of life.”

Wonder how? Consider an infant learning to crawl who can’t see the furniture she’s just backed into. Frustrated, she does more of what she knows to do — push harder — ‘blaming’ the furniture for a problem that’s really hers, even if she can’t see it. “The problem is precisely that she can’t see how she’s the problem,” which means “nothing she can think of will be a solution.” Bummer for baby, but beyond that, once we’re “blind, all the ‘solutions’ we can think of will actually make matters worse. That’s why self-deception is so central to leadership — because leadership is about making matters better.”

The Institute says, “Our experience in teaching about self-deception and its solution is that people find this knowledge liberating. It sharpens vision, reduces feelings of conflict, enlivens the desire for teamwork, redoubles accountability, magnifies the capacity to achieve results, and deepens satisfaction and happiness…. In organizations as varied as commercial ventures, neighborhoods, and families, what is needed most is people not just with influence but with influence for good.” Not a bad outcome for a modest investment in reading a compelling story.

Author: The Arbinger Institute
Published: San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publisher, Inc. ©2000, 2002

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos