Mutual Reinforcement Is Damaging Your Organization

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.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here .

What is mutual reinforcement in the context of management? How can blaming others for problems put both the accuser and the accused “in the box”?

In the Arbinger Institute’s leadership fable Leadership and Self-Deception, they discuss why blaming others only causes problems to grow. This made the main character Tom realize that he is guilty of mutual reinforcement both at work and home.

Continue reading to see what the Arbinger Institute has to say on mutual reinforcement and blame.

Mutual Reinforcement

While being in the box affects the way you see things, it also greatly affects others. When you blame others, they react and suddenly they’re in the box too. 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. 

In a sense, you actually collude with each other, because 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 reinforcement works:

  • 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.

The Story: Problems Escalate

During the discussion of blame and reinforcement, Tom thought of his 16-year-old son, Todd, and how he’d never felt his son was good enough. Perhaps he needed his son to be a problem in order to feel justified in always seeing him as a problem. He wondered how that would feel from his son’s perspective.

The need to see others as problems applies to many workplace interactions as well, Bud explained. You may need for people to perform poorly or create problems to justify your rationalizations and behavior toward them. So you provoke them to create problems and join you in a mutually reinforcing cycle of blame.

This soon affects how you begin to talk about them to others. The more people you can get to agree with you, the more justified you feel in your position. For example, if you were the parent whose son came home late, you might enlist your spouse to join you in blaming your son. At work, you might seek allies to reinforce and further feed your blame cycle with someone.

In this way, you further amplify the problem. If anyone tries to correct you, you resist because you’re in the box of self-deception and can’t see that you’re the problem.

In many companies, this destructive cycle gets in the way of achieving the results the company needs.

Self-Betrayal in Organizations

Bud explained that there are two ways distorted thinking or being in the box keeps companies from getting results or accomplishing what they need to.

1) When you’re in the box, you’re focused on self-justification, and what brings you justification—the failures of others—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 them 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
  • Lack of motivation 
  • Poor teamwork
  • Distrust
  • Backstabbing
  • Lack of accountability 
  • Poor communication
  • Lack of commitment
  • Lack of engagement

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

Mutual Reinforcement Is Damaging Your Organization

———End of Preview———

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *