How Distorted Perceptions Cloud Your Leadership

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 does it mean to be “inside the box” in the leadership fable Leadership and Self-Deception? How can having distorted perceptions of others make you a poor leader?

In the Arbinger Institute’s story, Tom is a new manager who is called out for leading inside the box. He realizes that he hasn’t been treating his employees kindly—or even seeing them as people.

Continue reading for an overview of Tom’s story and leadership advice for facing your distorted perceptions of others.

The View From the Box

When you’re in the box, you see only your own interests and have a distorted perception of others—you see them as objects or as problems standing in your way. In contrast, when you’re out of the box and not limited by your distorted view, you see others as people like you with equally legitimate interests.

How you feel toward someone depends on whether you’re viewing them from within the box or from outside the box.


An in-the-box view: As Bud boarded a bus, he saw there were few open seats. There was one next to him but he didn’t want to sit with anyone, so he put his briefcase on the empty seat and spread out the newspaper he was reading.

Bud viewed the other passengers as threats or problems, not as people like him with the same right to a seat. He saw himself as more important and everyone else and their needs as secondary (he was deluded or self-deceived).

An out-of-the-box view: On another trip, Bud and his wife were traveling together but couldn’t find adjoining empty seats. A woman who was reading a newspaper had an empty seat beside her and offered to take another seat so Bud and his wife could sit together. She saw them as people with needs and interests like hers. She was outside the box and saw the things clearly, without distortion.

On both buses, the same thing was happening on the surface—both Bud and the woman traveler were sitting and reading newspapers. But their mental states of being in and out of the box were different.

The Story: Tom’s In-the-Box Experience

Bud’s travel experience reminded Tom of a recent incident at work where he’d gotten upset and sharply criticized a woman—even threatening her job—who used his conference room and erased notes on the board without asking permission.

As Tom discussed the incident with Bud, it occurred to him that he’d been in the box and viewed the woman in a distorted way, as a threat or nuisance to him rather than as a person who probably had a good reason to use the room (although she shouldn’t have erased the board without asking). He hadn’t even asked her name.

Bud noted that the secret to Zagrum Company’s success was building a culture where they treated others as people rather than objects. While skill and talent are important at all companies, the difference at Zagrum was that its people-centered environment encouraged talented people to work harder. In contrast, leaders in most organizations are trapped in the box of self-deception and treat people as obstacles rather than inspiring them.

Bud told Tom that he knew the woman Tom had called on the carpet—Bud pointed out that her name was Joyce Mulman, which indicated to Tom that Bud had already heard about the incident. Bud suggested that not being interested in learning a person’s name is a sign you aren’t interested in knowing her as a person. He said Zagrum’s executive team made a point of learning as many employees’ names and faces as possible. It occurred to Tom that he didn’t know the names of more than 20 people in his division of 300.

Feeling defensive, Tom argued that he was justified in chastising Joyce. The problem was, Bud said, that Tom was in the box. The outcomes you get as a leader depend on where you’re coming from (inside or outside the box), not on what you do and say. Coming from the right place, you inspire people to do their best; coming from the wrong place, you exaggerate others’ faults and inspire their resentment.

This doesn’t mean you need to be soft or easy on poor performance. You can effectively deliver tough performance messages, as long as you do it from outside the box, where you have the other person’s best interests in mind. That’s what Lou did when he chastised Bud for not completing his assignment.

But tough messages are ineffective if delivered from inside the box. If Lou had delivered his tough message from inside the box, where he was focused on negative feelings toward Bud rather than on Bud’s best interests, the outcome would have been the opposite (Bud would have resented him instead of improving). Lou would have created more problems for himself and the people around him.

Practice and Doubts

The meeting with Bud broke for lunch and Tom took a walk to contemplate what he had heard. First, he decided to look for Joyce Mulman and apologize for mistreating her. Joyce’s office was empty so he sat down outside it and waited for her. When she arrived, she was surprised and alarmed to see him. She hastily apologized for her office being in disarray with reports stacked on the floor and her children’s artwork everywhere.

Tom assured her he hadn’t come to criticize but to apologize for his previous behavior. Joyce responded that she was sorry for erasing his notes from the board and had been worrying about it ever since. He said he should have handled it in a way that didn’t make her lose sleep, and they parted on better terms.

Then Tom called his wife Laura just to say hello—this surprised her because he normally only called about problems or when he wanted something. She responded skeptically when he said he was just calling to see how things were going. “You must want something, or you wouldn’t be calling,” she said. Tom felt defensive and instantly forgot the morning’s training. He asked why she had to make things difficult when he was just showing concern for her. She sarcastically thanked him for his sudden concern. He answered with more sarcasm, causing her to hang up. He decided he couldn’t help being in the box with her because she was so difficult.

How Distorted Perceptions Cloud Your Leadership

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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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