Leadership and Self-Deception: Book Overview

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 Arbinger Institute’s book Leadership and Self-Deception about? What can this book teach you about being a better leader at work and at home?

The Leadership and Self-Deception book is a fable about realizing your flaws, learning to get along better with others, and leading “outside the box.” The fable is told from the point of view of a manager who is having trouble getting along with his employees and with his wife and son at home.

Here is a brief overview of the lessons from the story.

Arbinger Institute: Leadership and Self-Deception

Self-deception—our tendency to see the world around us in a distorted way—is a common personal and organizational problem. The Arbinger Institute’s book Leadership and Self-Deception explains how self-deception derails our relationships and keeps organizations and leaders from achieving the results they want.

Instead of focusing on producing results, many leaders are trapped “in the box” of distorted thinking—they blame others to justify their own failures. They create the “people” problems that plague most organizations. Through the fictional story of a new executive joining an unusual company, this book tells leaders how to get “out of the box”—but you don’t have to be a leader to apply the principles to your life and workplace.

In-the-Box Thinking

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. You tell yourself that regardless of the challenges, it’s their job to provide good service.

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

Being ‘In the Box’ Distorts Your View of Reality

When you’re in the box, you see only your own interests and have a distorted view 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 people as being human like you and having equally legitimate interests.

How you feel toward someone depends on whether you’re viewing them from in or out of your box. Here’s an example of how this works:

An in-the-box view: As a business traveler boards a bus, he notices there are few open seats. There’s an empty seat next to him but he doesn’t want to sit with anyone, so he puts his briefcase on the seat and spreads out a newspaper in front of him.

He viewed the other passengers as threats or problems rather than as people like him with the same right to a seat. He sees himself as more important and everyone else and their needs as secondary (he’s deluded or deceiving himself).

An out-of-the-box view: A couple is traveling together but the bus is crowded and they can’t find seats side-by-side. A woman with an empty seat beside her offers to take another seat so the couple can sit together. She sees them as people with needs and interests like hers. She’s outside the box and sees the things with a clear view.

On the two buses, the same thing is happening on the surface—both the business traveler and the woman are sitting next to empty seats. But their mental states of being in and out of the box are different.

How you truly feel about a situation or person—whether you’re in or out of the box—comes through regardless of your words. Others sense how you feel about them and respond in ways that may be the opposite of what you want.

Self-Betrayal

The way you get into a box, or become trapped by self-deception, in the first place is by betraying yourself. You betray yourself when you choose not to do what you know you should do or actually want to do—for instance, not holding an elevator for someone, or feeling that you should apologize to someone but not doing so.

Once you’ve betrayed yourself, you act in destructive ways to justify or rationalize it:

  • You exaggerate other people’s faults.
  • You exaggerate your own virtue or rightness.
  • You overstate the importance of factors that justify your self-betrayal.
  • You blame others for your feelings.
  • Over time, certain behaviors and justifications can become habitual for you.

By blaming and mistreating others, you provoke unconstructive behavior from them in return. Now, they’re in the box too, and you get into a destructive cycle with them. You blame them, they react to your blame, you blame them even more, they react, and so on. You reinforce each other’s reasons to stay in the box and act badly. 

To justify your behavior, you each need the other person to behave badly. You end up undermining the effectiveness of everything you do and making things worse.

Here’s an example of how mutual blame and reinforcement work:

  • If you’re in the box in your thinking toward your teenager and he gets home late, you’ll see him as irresponsible and disrespectful. You might respond with criticism and discipline. If he’s in the box toward you, he’ll respond by viewing you as dictatorial. Rather than do what you want him to do—get home earlier—he’s likely to get home later. Thus you provoke him to do more of what you don’t want, and he, in turn, provokes more of what he doesn’t want from you: discipline.

Self-Betrayal in Organizations

There are two ways distorted thinking or being in the box keeps companies from getting results or accomplishing their goals.

1) When you’re in the box, you’re focused on self-justification—you wish for others’ failure so you feel vindicated for blaming them. But wanting others to fail goes against your company’s or organization’s interests.

2) Also, when you’re in the box and focused on yourself, you view results in a distorted way. People may describe you as results-focused, but you’re mainly interested in using results to make yourself look good.

You prioritize your results over other people’s results and may trample others to get your results. By being in your box, you provoke others—for instance, by withholding information or resources—and they respond by doing the same things. You feel justified in blaming them and they feel justified in blaming you.

This kind of contagion can easily spread through an organization, so that instead of focusing on results, people and departments align against each other. Although they were hired to help the organization succeed, they end up taking satisfaction in others’ failures and resent anyone’s success.

‘People’ Problems

In addition to undermining a company’s results, distorted in-the-box thinking creates “people” problems that can seriously damage or sink the organization. They include:  

  • Conflict, stress, distrust, backstabbing, and poor teamwork 
  • Lack of accountability, motivation, engagement, or commitment 
  • Poor communication

In-the-box thinking (self-deception) starts with self-betrayal, so addressing self-betrayal is the solution to “people” problems.

When individuals fail to do things they should for coworkers, they betray themselves and blame others to justify their behavior. As the problems escalate, everyone participates in a collective betrayal of not helping the organization achieve its results, as they were hired to do.

How to Get Out of the Box

The way to get out of the box, or escape your distorted thinking about others, is to see them as people rather than obstacles or threats. You need to see others as people with needs on a par with your own needs and stop resisting your sense of obligation to others.

As soon as you stop resisting and choose to respond to others’ needs, you’re being true to yourself. You no longer need your self-justifying thoughts and feelings—and you’re out of the box.

This is difficult when self-justifying behavior has become a habit, but it’s doable one step at a time. The fact is that while you’re in the box with some people, you’re probably and out of the box with others at the same time. This is a positive sign because being out of the box with someone means you have the capacity to change your perspective more generally and be out of the box with others in your life as well. 

When you’re out of the box with someone, your awareness of their needs can help you break down your boxes with others. When you start seeing one relationship more clearly, you begin seeing others more clearly as well.

Staying Out of the Box

The more you stop resisting others’ needs and respond to them instead, the more you’ll stay out of the box. This doesn’t mean doing everything for everyone—it means doing what you can. Appreciating others and treating them considerately is liberating and frees up the energy required for self-justification.

Leadership Outside the Box

To manage outside the box, leaders need to be prepared to handle the most common workplace self-betrayal: employees get into a box in terms of their relationships with coworkers and undermine the company’s results.

Here’s how it develops: When most people start a job, they’re thankful to have it and feel an obligation to contribute to the company’s success. They start out wanting to do their best, but over time their feelings change. They begin to develop negative feelings toward coworkers and to have problems. They get into boxes.

Managers who are in the box themselves, or thinking in distorted ways, can’t fix these employee problems. But being out of the box and seeing the situation clearly allows you, as a manager, to assess responsibility and solve the problems. Because you’re not focused on blaming others and justifying your own actions—but on meeting the company’s needs—you’re in a position to help employees stay on track.

From an employee’s perspective, it’s challenging to work for a boss who’s often in the box, and you can get pulled into a box of your own, in which you justify your failings by blaming your boss’s bad behavior. Of course, once you respond from within your box, you need your boss to continue being a bad boss to maintain your justifications.

Instead, when your boss is in the box and behaves badly, you should take note of the effects and resolve to be a better leader yourself if you get the chance someday. People may follow an in-the-box manager because they feel they have no other option. But forcing allegiance isn’t leadership. In contrast, people choose to follow out-of-the-box leaders.

Your success as a leader depends on avoiding self-betrayal by being true to yourself and responding to others’ needs. When you’re out of the box of self-deception, you can support out-of-the-box behavior in others. Leaders owe it to themselves, their company, and their employees to be out of the box.

Leadership and Self-Deception: Book Overview

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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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