Leadership and Self-Deception
The Arbinger Institute is not a household name in the conflict resolution circles I work in.
It should be.
In its practice and in a series of books it has published, the Arbinger staff helps people come to grips with some of their most deeply embedded and self-destructive ways of thinking and acting, which it labels “the box.” Like most of Arbinger’s books, Leadership and Self-Deception. Develops its point through allegories which make it an easy read—until you explore the lessons that underlie the story of its protagonists, Tom and Bud, a newly hired executive and his boss/mentor, respectively.
Their key notion is the way that they call self-deception lead to our being mentally “locked” in that box. It pulls together lots of ideas from a number of psychological and spiritual tradition and revolves around a surprisingly simple notion that they call self-betrayal or “an act contrary to what I feel I should do for another (Kindle location 1038).”
Self-betrayal happens all the time and it always gets us in trouble because it leads all of us (myself included) to go against what we often think of as our core values. It occurs when “you” and “I” face a problem that is not getting solved, and I fall into a trap which other psychologists call the image of the enemy in which “I” tend to see you as lazy, inconsiderate, i approporiate, and so on. In short, I blame you for the problem. The idea of self-betrayal and the box it leads us into so powerful is that we get into it routinely, in situations in which terms like “enemy” seem overblown—at work, at home, in our neighborhoods, and so on.
They call it self-betrayal because once you start doing it, you begin to warp your view of reality. You lose sight of your role in producing the problem, and you wait for the other person to take the first step in solving it. More often than not, you feel trapped inside of this invisible box that saps you of creative and other forms of positive energy.
Of course, when two or more people are in their own individual boxes, that leads to a self-reinforcing vicious cycle in which our relationship continues to deteriorate because we each look for ways to have our actions justified which is not about to happen. ‘In the box, we invite mutual justification. We collude in giving each other reason to stay in the box. The box gets in the way of our achieving results (location 1572).”
Getting out of the box is also deceptively simple, until you try to do it and realize it is a lifetime’s work. It gets expressed in multiple ways in those psychological and spiritual traditions, but most of them boil down to the Golden Rule which has an equivalent in all of the world’s major spiritual traditions. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
You can’t do that perfect or use it all the time. You can work at it. You can’t expect other people to move “outside their boxes,” but you can work your way out of your own, especially if you are a leader or, as I have been, a teacher and facilitator. As they put it toward the end of the book:
Don’t focus on what other are doing wrong. Do focus on what you can do right to help. Don’t worry about whether others are helping you. Do worry about whether you are helping others (location 2514).