Leadership and Self-Deception, by The Arbinger Institute

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A friend loaned me this book after it was recommended to them by their manager, and I think it’s a great resource for illustrating how we contribute to the negative relationships in our lives.

It’s a fictionalized story of how a business executive and father is coached into seeing how his own behaviors and attitudes reinforce the negative behaviors of those around him. For example, he has a pre-existing bias that his co-workers are less competent than he is, so he takes work away from them and does it himself, which makes them less motivated, which worsens their performance, which reinforces his bias that they are less competent. The book posits that each of these vicious circles is started by him being “in the box”, where he treats others as objects to be used for his own ends, rather than treating them compassionately as people with their own needs and agency.

Each of us goes “into the box” when we betray ourselves – we see an opportunity to engage with somebody else as a person, but then we betray ourselves and turn down that opportunity. Once we have turned away, then we have to rationalize our behavior, and we do so by treating the other person as an object, and saying they weren’t worth engaging with anyway.

The example in the book is how when his infant son was crying at night, the father thought about getting up to quiet the baby so that his wife could sleep, but decided not to. As soon as he decided that, his brain took over and started rationalizing the decision: “I do all the work to bring home the money for the family – it’s lazy and inconsiderate for her to expect me to lose sleep dealing with our son, too.” By portraying himself as the hard-working victim, and his wife as an inconsiderate lazy wife and mother, it sets the stage to perpetuate the cycle. As the book puts it, “When I betray myself, I begin to see the world in a way that justifies my self-betrayal. When I see the world in a self-justifying way, my view of reality becomes distorted.” And, of course, when he sees his wife as lazy and inconsiderate, she comes up with her own responses (“he’s uncaring and selfish!”), and that kicks off the cycle of negative behavior.

What I really like about this framework is that it puts the onus squarely on me to change the negative relationships I am in. It forces me to ask the question of what I am doing to perpetuate that negativity, and what kind of justification I am doing to preserve my own ego or prejudices or behaviors. Changing the situation starts with me approaching the other person with compassion and curiosity, to learn about their needs and value them, instead of selfishly focusing only on what I want.

And, to be clear, this isn’t easy. The book freely acknowledges that we can’t live in that state of compassion all the time. But if we can notice when we see ourselves starting to rationalize and justify our behavior, we can perhaps change our behavior and avoid the initial self-betrayal that leads to living “in the box”.

One other aside that I really liked from the book was the idea that what matters is not the behavior itself – it’s the attitude behind the behavior. The book uses the example of a CEO who confronts a manager that doesn’t complete an assignment, appreciates his work and contributions, but then says “You won’t ever let us down again, will you?” This could be taken either negatively or positively – if there were a lack of trust, the manager could find ways to resent the CEO and feel under-appreciated for all that he’s done that wasn’t mentioned. However, if the CEO really means well, it could be seen as a positive rallying cry – a belief by the CEO that the manager is capable of so much more, and the CEO is there to help him achieve that. The difference is whether the manager trusts the CEO, and feels good intent behind the comment. I liked this example because it is a reminder that we can’t just do the right thing and expect praise – we have to have good intentions and compassion for an action to be perceived well by others. As the book puts it, “No matter what we’re doing on the outside, people respond primarily to how we are feeling about them on the inside.”

I really like this mental model for analyzing our negative relationships. I’ve been using the terminology regularly, and noticing more when I feel that pang of self-betrayal and the whiff of self-justification. Then I can dig in and really question how I know what I “know” and determine whether my perception of the other person is rooted in reality, or in my need to justify my own behavior. I highly recommend this – it’s a quick read for a book that has a highly useful framework for understanding our own behavior.

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