Leading From Inside the Box: The Deception Trap

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Leadership and Self-Deception" by The Arbinger Institute. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the deception box in the book Leadership and Self-Deception? How do you know if you’re leading from the box?

In Leadership and Self-Deception, the Arbinger Institute tells a story of a manager named Tom who is “stuck in the box.” However, Tom can’t escape the box unless he first realizes that he is in it, and recognizes his habit of self-betrayal.

Keep reading to learn what it means to be in the deception box.

The Problem of Self-Deception 

You’re in a state of self-deception when you know or want to do the right thing but don’t do it. By not acting, you betray yourself, then feel guilty or frustrated by your behavior. To justify it, you blame the other person for causing a problem. You’re deceiving yourself about your behavior and motivations.

You don’t see that you’re causing the problem and therefore you can’t resolve it. The book refers to this deluded state as being trapped “in the box.”


For instance, you betray and then deceive yourself when you:

  • Pull into the last parking space right in front of someone else, then rush into your building to make it look like you were in a hurry and needed the parking space.
  • Fail to share important information with a colleague although you know they would benefit from it. You tell yourself they should be able to figure things out themselves.
  • Treat a clerk poorly when you know they’re overworked and not responsible for the length of the checkout line.
  • Feel justified in criticizing an employee because you think he’s incompetent and you’re unfairly “stuck” with working with him.

The Story: Tom Has a Problem

in the book Leadership and Self-Deception, the main character Tom Callum was a month into his new job leading a division at Zagrum Company when he was requested to attend a day-long meeting with Bud Jefferson, executive vice president and chief assistant to the company president, Kate Stenarude.

Colleagues had told Tom that new employees’ meetings with Bud were the key to the company’s exceptional performance, so Tom looked forward to learning the success secret. When Tom arrived for the meeting, Bud immediately cut to the chase. He shocked Tom by announcing that Tom had a problem he needed to solve in order to survive at Zagrum Company. A big part of the problem was that Tom didn’t recognize he had a problem in the first place, although everyone around him, from his coworkers to his family, could see it.

Bud explained that problems like Tom’s develop when people put their own needs first and justify treating others badly without accepting or realizing they’re doing so. Tom, like most people, was deluded about his behavior. Under questioning from Bud, Tom acknowledged feeling “stuck” with some incompetent or lazy employees. But Tom felt he was treating them appropriately by being direct in pointing out their faults or by manipulating some of them to get what he wanted.

Bud pointed out, though, that Tom wasn’t handling people as effectively as he thought he was, and likely was making things worse. His sense of reality was distorted—he was focused on others’ faults when he himself was the problem.

Bud explained that if you’re treating people appropriately, but still feel they’re a problem or don’t respect them, that message (how you really feel about them) comes through—and they respond defensively.

Bud acknowledged once having the same shortcoming of being blind to his impact on others, which was why he could help Tom succeed. Bud described an experience early in his career when, as a young lawyer, he participated in putting together a big financing deal. As Bud focused on his part of the deal, he isolated himself from colleagues and failed to work as a team player. He saw himself as committed and hardworking, but colleagues viewed him as disengaged and not committed to the team or its overall vision. 

Bud began to resent his colleagues for questioning his commitment—he’d left his wife and newborn son and had flown across the country to work on the project, which he felt made him the most committed member of the team. He didn’t see that he was a problem for the team—he really just wanted to get the project done so he could go home. Bud was “stuck” in his experience.

In telling this story, Bud explained to Tom that when you can’t see or accept that you’re the problem, you’re “in the box,” metaphorically speaking. You have a distorted and limited perspective. This is an example of self-deception, one of the most common and destructive problems in organizations.

A company can’t solve problems that are getting in the way of results if the people causing those problems are unable or refuse to see how they’re responsible. 

Bud’s story reminded Tom of a former boss at his old company, Chuck Staehli, who undermined teamwork because he treated employees badly and took credit for their successes. Yet Staehli would never have considered himself a problem.

Bud replied that Tom’s former boss exemplified self-deception—the problem of not knowing or accepting that you’re creating a problem because you have a distorted view of reality.

When You’re the Problem 

To further illustrate how self-deception works and the harm it can cause, Bud told the story of a Hungarian obstetrician, Ignaz Semmelweis, who pioneered antiseptic procedures among maternity patients at the Vienna General Hospital in the mid-1800s.

The hospital had a high mortality rate in the maternity ward—one in 10 women who gave birth there died. Semmelweis was determined to find the cause of the disease, then called “childbed fever,” but no matter what he tried, half the women who became ill with it died.

Semmelweis discovered that mothers in the section with the high mortality rate were treated by doctors, while those in another section with much lower mortality were being treated by midwives. He standardized the procedures in the two sections, but it made no difference. He then took a four-month leave to visit another hospital. While he was gone, the number of deaths dropped—so he concluded that the cause was something he was doing.

Because Vienna General was a research hospital, doctors spent time treating patients and also studying cadavers, but midwives only treated patients. Semmelweis decided he must be transmitting something harmful—some sort of “particles”—from cadavers to patients with his hands. He instituted a policy requiring doctors to wash their hands in a chlorine solution before treating patients—and the mortality rate plummeted to one in 100. This led to an eventual scientific understanding of germs.

The doctors had been carrying a germ they failed to recognize, which created a host of symptoms that all could have been prevented by one action: handwashing. In the same way, leaders in many companies spread a “germ” that causes a host of what we call “people” problems. However, the germ can be eliminated by one action.

Self-deception—leaders being trapped in the deception box—is the disease, Bud said. “People” problems, such as lack of motivation and resistance, are the symptoms, which are caused by the same germ. 

The germ that creates and spreads dysfunction in organizations and families is self-betrayal. Part 2 of this book will explain how self-betrayal develops but can be eliminated in one step, allowing seemingly intractable “people” problems to be easily solved. 

Leading From Inside the Box: The Deception Trap

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of The Arbinger Institute's "Leadership and Self-Deception" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Leadership and Self-Deception summary :

  • How self-deception derails personal and professional relationships
  • How to get "out of the box" of distorted thinking
  • Why you need to stop seeing others as obstacles or threats

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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