Is Self-Deception Keeping You in the Box?

Have you ever wondered if there was a missing ingredient that could improve your relationships – in the workplace and beyond?

Well, it wasn’t until we came across the book, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box, written by The Arbinger Institute, that we were able to put our finger on an important part of the puzzle.  – Self Deception.  Not that it’s THE ANSWER, but it can go a long way to changing the quality and nature of your relationships. Understanding how acts of self-deception affect our perception of others is the first step.  This can give us insights into recognizing the behaviors that can lead us to treat people more as objects – means to our end – and not living breathing human beings with needs just like our own.

It is easy to get caught up in the endless “doing” of work and lose sight of who is at the other end of our “transaction”.  Managers, even seasoned ones, who pride themselves on their results orientation, can lose their focus seeing interactions between people – as tasks.  Another workplace reality is that we simply do not “gel” with or even like, some of our co-workers – all the more reason to see past their humanness.

“We define self-deception as not knowing – and resisting the possibility – that one has a problem.”Arbinger Institute

So, what is self-deception? Here’s one perspective:  when we act in ways that are contrary to what we believe  is right and appropriate, especially in our relationships, we are engaging in self-deception.  Now it is true, we can deceive ourselves in many ways. We can make  promises to change our behavior that we never keep, we can deny our own self-destructive habits and rationalize choices that betray our inner truths.    But relational self-deception is particularly common and can become habitual if we’re not self-aware.  Because we unconsciously create patterns of thought and responses to problems and issues in our lives, we often develop beliefs that people and events are the root cause of our actions.   In other words, we blame others for our actions. We lie to ourselves.

Essentially, our unconscious acts of self-deception have at the core our common failure to see the humanness in people.  We fall short of taking into account that people have their own needs, beliefs and values that drive their behavior.  When we act in a sense – against our own values, we put ourselves into a “box.” 

In the Box

When we’re in the box we see and respond to others through the lens of self-deception. We lose sight of others and to justify our behavior we blame or find fault with them.  They then become a problem, a nuisance, an obstacle …no longer a “person.” The distortion of self-deception can take many forms.  We exaggerate the shortcomings of others and pump up our own virtues.  When we deceive ourselves we see the other person as the problem and find all the things that we imagine to be wrong about that person and their behavior.  Doing so allows us to feel justified in terms of our thoughts and behavior. In other words, we need the other person to be “blameworthy.”

To make matters worse, we often don’t even know this is happening… that we have a problem.  Many of us carry around our very own “boxed in” perspectives, a result of unconscious conditioning and habits. We unconsciously create “boxes” of self-deception.

Dance of the Boxes

When we find ourselves in situations of disagreement or conflict (which may have as its roots self-deception) we encounter the other person’s “box.” Each person then provokes the other and like a well-choreographed dance, we have the “dance of the boxes.” Each helps to create the very problems they blame the other for and justifies a reason for staying in the box.

It works something like this: let’s assume that you were just promoted to a manager’s position and assigned to lead a cross-functional team. You believe that a manager’s role is to achieve results and that it’s important to build a cohesive and trusting team environment. It’s your intention to do so. It’s now six months into your role as manager and things have not worked out as you envisioned. Team members are not collaborating, schedules are not being met and trust is low. If you were acting from within the box, seeing your team through the filter of self-deception, you would most likely see them as the problem and try to change their behavior. This is a common in-the-box problem-solving approach.

It’s important to note that being in the box does not mean that the team’s behavior does not need to improve. Remember though, when we’re in the box it’s a distorted view of other’s in which we place blame on them or circumstances to justify our self-deceit.
In order to get out of the box, this manager needs to first self-reflect on the following questions: 

  • What or whom do you think is causing the team problems?
  • How would you describe yourself in your efforts to achieve results?
  • How do you see each of your team members?
  • How do they see you?
  • Do your behaviors match your intentions?
  • Have you inflated  your virtues (i.e. “ I’m fair,” “ I work hard,” “I care about the company”)
  • Have you inflated the faults of your team members (i.e. “ They’re lazy,” “They don’t care,” “They don’t have the same sense of commitment”)

So, how do we get out of the box when we don’t even know that we’re in it, and stay out of the box?

There is a decisive moment (most often at the subconscious level) when our thoughts are focused on what we imagine the other’s person’s needs and feelings might be. The process of getting out of the box begins with this awareness.  There is always an emotional component associated with the thoughts we’re having about the other person. If we are connected to those feelings we have about the person, seeing them as people, we climb out of the box.  In those moments we have a choice to act contrary to our deeper intentions, or to honor them.
What getting out of the box and sustaining out-of-box experiences boils down to is empathy. The only way to stay out of the box is to shift our focus to the other person, to honor the other person’s unique experience.  When we lift that curtain of blame, we open ourselves to more respectful and creative ways to respond to the issues and conflicts inherent in our relationships.

Art: Jango – Deviant Art

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