Leadership and Self-Deception

Arbinger, Institute. (2000). Leadership and self-deception. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

Maybe it is the time of the season for reflection, or the state of our country, or the desire for silver bullets, but my thoughts turned to a book I read several years ago by the Arbinger Institute in 2000. Leaders sometimes do not see they are the problem or at least part of the problem for a lack of success.  This is one of the barriers that stand in the way of unleashing and retaining talents in schools and business.

Self-deception is like this, it blinds us to the true cause of problems, and once blind, all the “solutions” we can think of will make matters worse. When those in leadership positions think they are the only ones responsible for the success or that they are the only ones with good ideas, the organization suffers.  Ultimately, the best talent walks.  Stars don’t have to work for you.  They can find a job or a calling that is aligned with their own goals and beliefs.

When a leader starts having problems, it seems that everyone knows it but the leader. The problem is that the leader doesn’t know it. Leaders will find some reason or excuse, other than themselves, to blame for a lack of progress or success. There are several stories that are illustrated this in the book.

Sometimes the boss (remember boss spelled backward is a double SOB) treats others with disdain or puts people down.  That, of course, exacerbates the situation and leads to a faster downfall. No one wants to be abused or put down.

The technical term for consistent blindness is self-deception.  We call it “being in a box.”

There is nothing more common in organizations than self-deception. When leaders are told by those, with the courage to confront bad decisions or bad behavior, those leaders usually respond with anger or demoralizing words discounting the feedback.

The following story gives a perfect example of this phenomena.  Ignatz Semmelweis was a doctor in Vienna. The moral is how to get out of “being in the box thinking” that you are in control and the problem exists outside of your behavior

What If I am the PROBLEM?

Semmelweis was a European doctor, an obstetrician, in the mid-1800s.  He worked at Vienna’s General Hospital, an important research hospital, where he tried to get to the bottom of a horrendous mortality rate among women in the maternity ward.  In the section of the ward where Semmelweis practiced, the mortality rate was one in ten.  Think of it.  One in every ten women giving birth there died!  Can you imagine?

Vienna General had such a frightening reputation that some women actually gave birth on the street and then went to the hospital. I can’t blame them, I said. The collection of symptoms associated with these deaths became known as childbed fever.

Conventional medical science at the time called for separate treatment for each symptom.  Inflammation meant excess blood was causing swelling-so they bled the patient or applied leeches.  They treated fever in the same way.  Trouble breathing meant the air was bad so they improved ventilation.  And so on. But nothing worked.  More than half the women who contracted the disease died within days.

The terrible risk was well known.  Semmelweis reported that patients were frequently seen kneeling and wringing their hands, begging to be moved to a second section of the maternity ward where the mortality rate was one in fifty-still horrific, but far better than the one-in-ten rate in Semmelweis’s section.

Semmelweis gradually became obsessed with the problem-in particular with discovering why the mortality rate in one section of the maternity ward was so much higher than in the other.  The only obvious difference between the sections was that Semmelweis’ section was attended by doctors, while the other section was attended by midwives.  He couldn’t see why that would explain the difference, so he tried to equalize every other factor among the maternity patients.  He standardized everything from birthing positions to ventilation and diet.  He even standardized the way the laundry was done. He looked at every possibility but could find no answer.  Nothing he tried made any measurable difference in the mortality rates.

He must have been incredibly discouraged. But then something happened.  He took a four-month leave to visit another hospital, and upon his return, he discovered that the death rate had fallen significantly in his section of the ward in his absence.

He didn’t know why, but it had definitely fallen.  He dug in to find the reason.  Gradually, his inquiry led him to think about the possible significance of research done by the doctors on cadavers. Cadavers?

Vienna General was a teaching and research hospital.  Many of the doctors split their time between research on cadavers and treatment of live patients.  They hadn’t seen any problem with that practice because there was as yet no understanding of germs.  All they knew were symptoms. And in examining his own work practices compared to those who worked for him in his absence, Semmelweis discovered that the only significant difference was that he, Semmelweis, spent far more time doing research on the cadavers.

From these observations, he developed a theory of childbed fever, a theory that became the precursor to germ theory. He concluded that particles from cadavers and other diseased patients were being transmitted to healthy patients on the hands of the physicians.  So he immediately instituted a policy requiring physicians to wash their hands thoroughly in a chlorine and lime solution before examining any patient.  And you know what happened? The death rate immediately fell to one in a hundred.

The doctors were the carriers. Semmelweis once sadly remarked, Only God knows the number of patients who went prematurely to their graves because of me. Imagine living with that. The doctors were doing the best they knew how, but they were carrying a disease they knew nothing about.  It caused a multitude of debilitating symptoms, all of which could be prevented by a single act once the common cause of the symptoms was discovered, what was later identified as a germ.

There is another germ that Semmelweis discovered that exists in many organizations. Self-deception can kill enthusiasm, leadership, and organizations.  This is why leaders need people around them to speak the truth.  Those courageous people can be the most valuable people to the leader if the leader is wise enough to listen and take the feedback seriously. Organizations, where feedback is taken seriously, might be able to identify and correct possible errors in judgment before extensive damage can be done.

Great leaders inspire devotion and commitment ‘in’ others and ‘to’ others.  They are not perfect but they get results.  Reciprocal respect goes a long way in building a learning culture. Trying to quantify everything can lead to over managing and under leading.  No leader can make every decision.  It is leadership in the field that will sustain innovation and build ethical, trusting workplaces.

No matter what we are doing on the outside, people respond primarily to how they’re feeling about them (leaders) on the inside. Most of the time emotion drives decisions.  The culture has a lot to do with whether or not people decide their commitment and alignment with organizational goals.  This usually depends on the relationship with the supervisors.  See the Gallup Organization’s work – people don’t leave organizations, they leave supervisors.

In schools and business, learning is the fuel that produces energy for success.  Eliminate learning and the system dies.   Self-deception of the leader can fool them into thinking they are the major cause of productivity.  This can be true when the leader is committed to creating and sustaining ongoing learning, sharing of repertoire, and a belief is common goals.

My number one sort, when considering whether or not to work with a supervisor is ego.  If ego and self-aggrandizement is the number one element in their character, I will choose to work somewhere else.  Chris Coffey said, ‘too much ego, amigo’ is a warning sign of the culture.  I never forgot about Chris’s words. When I betray myself, I begin to see the world in a way that justifies my self-betrayal.

Characteristics of Self-Betrayal

A reflection of an employee: It’s hard to want to help someone who shows no feelings for you. I start focusing on and inflating the faults of the supervisor when I needed to feel justified for mine.  Having betrayed myself, the truth was just the opposite of what I thought it was.

Four characteristics of self-betrayal

  1. Inflate others’ faults
  2. Inflate own virtue
  3. Inflate the value of things that justify my self-betrayal
  4. Blame

Almost anything can be perverted into a self-justifying image. My self-justifying image about being learned can be the very thing that sometimes keeps me from learning.

So, if I’m in the box, blaming others, my blame invites them to do what?  Blame me.  Reciprocal blame. If I a surrounded by sick people, I will get sick myself. DUH! (Bill’s Duh)

A list of typical organizational problems starts to appear and be reinforced.

  • Lack of commitment
  • Lack of engagement
  • Troublemaking
  • Conflict
  • Lack of motivation
  • Stress poor teamwork
  • Backbiting/bad attitudes
  • Misalignment
  • Lack of trust
  • Lack of accountability
  • Communication problems

Organizations die or are severely crippled, by those symptoms.


Example from the book: I was completely blind to my own role in our mediocrity. As a result, I was blind to how I was blaming them not for their mistakes, but for mine. I was blind, as we always are, to my own box.

            I saw in myself as a leader who was so sure of the brilliance of my own ideas that I couldn’t allow brilliance in anyone else’s, a leader who felt I was so “enlightened” that I needed to see workers negatively in order to prove my enlightenment a leader, so driven to be the best that I made sure nobody else could be as good as I was.

            I am a lonely man.

Normally we expend a lot of energy in the box trying to change others. Does that work? You are trying to change others while you are in the box. What doesn’t work in the box?


The Way Out

            The moment I see another as a person with needs, hopes, and worries as real and legitimate as my own – I’m out of the box.

            Out of the box, I understand what it’s like to be in the box. When I’m out of the box I neither need nor provoke others to be jerks, I can actually ease, rather than exacerbate, tough situations.

            So your success as a leader depends on being free of self-betrayal. Only then do you invite others to be free of self-betrayal themselves. Only then are you creating leaders yourself – coworker whom people will respond to, trust, and want to work with.

Two things need to happen:

  1. Institute a process in our organization where we help people to see how they’re in the box.
  2. We need to institute a system of focusing on results that keep us out of the box much more than we have been: a way of thing, a way of measuring, a way of reporting, a way of working.

In some of the schools where I have been a principal when having a leadership team meeting, I ask two questions that help keep me out of the box.

  1. Look around the room. Are these the people you want to get in trouble with?  We will get in trouble.  So, look around, are these the colleagues that you want to be with to face problems?
  2. Will you tell me if you think I am wrong?  I may be the principal and I don’t know the culture as you do.  I need a commitment from you that you will tell me if you think I am wrong.

This doesn’t ensure openness and it is a start.  Also, review this from time to time.  Embrace the intelligence and passion of your colleagues.

            Merely knowing the material doesn’t get you out of the box. Living it does.

Knowing the material. Knowing is important and insufficient. Find out the possible consequence of your actions.

  • Self-betrayal leads to self-deception and “the box.”
  • When you’re in the box, you can’t focus on results.
  • Your influence and success will depend on being out of the box
  • You get out of the box as you cease resisting other people

Living the Material

  • Don’t try to be perfect. Do try to be better
  • Don’t use the vocabulary – “the box,” and so on – with people who don’t already know it. Do use the principles in your own life.
  • Don’t look for others’ boxes. Do look for your own
  • Don’t accuse others of being the box. Do try to stay out of the box yourself
  • Don’t give up on yourself when you discover you’ve been in the box. Do keep trying
  • Don’t’ deny you’ve been in the box when you have been. Do apologize, then just keep marching forward, trying to be more helpful to others in the future
  • Don’t focus on what others are doing wrong. Do focus on what you can do right to help
  • Don’t worry whether others are helping you. Do worry whether you are helping others.

Being in the box is what divides fathers from sons, husbands from wives, and neighbors from neighbors – the same thing divides coworkers from coworkers as well. Companies fail for the same reason families do. And why should we be surprised to discover that it’s so?

            A family, a company – both are organizations of people.

Pay attention to those around you. Ask for and listen to honest feedback.  Say ‘thank you’ to those with the courage to give you honest feedback.  Be open to change and being a learner.  Your colleagues deserve it.  You deserve it.