Leadership & Self-Deception: Inside the Box

It was 1995, and I was in my dream job in Washington, D.C. I had just been appointed by a member of Congress as his legislative assistant after a mere 3 months of Hill experience, and I was excited about my new job. I had been in graduate school for 4 years, and it was my first time to be in a real full-time job with lots of responsibility. I worked hard to deal with the learning curve, and overall I thought that I was doing the job just fine. I liked my boss, he seemed to like me, and I enjoyed my colleagues. I knew that I was behind on a couple of letters and calls, but so was everyone that worked on the Hill.I came in around 8:30 or 9 every day, and left after 6. I knew my issues. In fact, it seemed that others in our office were the problem. They sometimes seemed lazy and incompetent to me.

One day the person who had been my advocate to get the job, now Kentucky State Treasurer Jonathan Miller, stopped by the office and asked me to go to coffee with him. I sensed something was wrong, and Jonathan asked me, “How do you think it’s going for you in the office?” I said that I sensed that everything was ok. There were a few areas where I needed improvement, but I was new. Then Jonathan said, “Todd, you’re not focused. You’re doing the minimum, and you’re certainly not being proactive. If you’re going to stay in this job, you need to step it up. You’re making me look bad because I recommended you, and I hope you will do better.”I am not given to being argumentative, but my mind immediately turned to all the work I was doing for the congressman, all the ways that I had been kind to the staff, and the social events I was giving up at night to be at the office. And all for $25,000 per year in salary. Did someone not like me, or was there really a problem?

I was shocked. I thought that I was doing just fine, and I found out that not everyone perceived me in the way that I perceived myself. In my mind, I was working hard. They actually didn’t disagree. I was working hard, but I wasn’t working smart. I didn’t seem focused. I needed to be at work at 8 am, not 9 am. I needed to stay until 9 pm some nights, and work a few weekends too. Despite showing up every day, I wasn’t present. I was letting down some people who believed in me. I still don’t know all of the reasons for my lack of engagement, but my friend’s warning taught me a lesson that I was destined to learn several times in my life: My perceptions of my value, work or commitment are not always shared by others. My intentions were good, but my actions betrayed my intentions. The good news is that I did listen, and a year later, I was named the congressman’s legislative director.

Self-deception like my own in this situation is normal human behavior that manifests itself in relationships and in work places. The biggest problem with self-deception is that we usually can’t see it. It is in that sector of the Johari window where we are unable to see our own selves or how others see us. We tell ourselves that we are doing fine, that others like us, and that we are not the cause of problems. If anything, we are the victim of others’ problems or actions. Our natural human instinct is to believe we are innocent, so we find reasons to justify our innocense to ourselves. This is even more acute if we have been told over and over again that people like us or we have been awarded for our success.

This self-deception is what the authors at The Arbinger Institute call “being in the box” in their book Leadership and Self-Deception. The authors call the actions of self-deception, or the inability to see that we have a problem, being “in the box” because we are stuck inside our own closed perspective. We have a problem that we don’t know, and we are resistant to the truth when others try to tell us that we have a problem. Sometimes they may even fear to tell us because we are the leader or the boss, or they sense that our insecurity will prevent us from hearing their perception. So we go on with our self-deception until we finally find ourselves reprimanded or fired because we refuse to see that things are not as we perceive.

Self-deception is the most damaging human behavior in any organization, and yet it among the most common behavior. It is common because we all are inclined to believe that the problem is you, or the president, or the Republicans, or the Democrats, or the bigots, or our parents. But certainly not me. Not my political party. Not my department.

Until we can begin with our own failures and contributions to the situation, we cannot get out of the box. We will remain in the box, and we will force others to stay in theirs in their dealings with us. From that point, we are caught in a toxic and vicious cycle.

But how did we get in the box in the first place? More on that tomorrow …

2 Responses to “Leadership & Self-Deception: Inside the Box”
  1. Phillip says:

    On Sunday, my class is looking at Proverbs that have to do with accepting rebuke. I think this will be helpful in terms of self-deception. But working 12 hour days for $25K, well that’s just nuts. 🙂

  2. toddbouldin says:

    Thank you, Phillip. Actually there will be much more in the coming days that will be helpful in that regard. At least I hope. Thanks for reading.

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