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Book Review – Leadership and Self-deception: Getting Out of the Box

October 17th, 2008 2 comments

I’m going to preface my review by stating that the book I’m going to review is not directly about psychology; it has nothing to do with neuroscience. However, it has everything to do with interpersonal relationships and social interactions, which are two areas frequently addressed in psychology. I do not have any affiliation with The Arbinger Institute; I just enjoyed the book.

The book Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box was written by The Arbinger Institute. The work was derived from the ideas of C. Terry Warner, a U.S. philosopher. The Arbinger Institute is a management training and consulting firm that works with businesses and individuals to help them improve their businesses and lives. The 168 page book is easy to read; it is written in a simple prose like a novel.

The main character in the book is Tom, a recently-hired mid to upper level manager at the fictional company Zagrum. Throughout the book Tom mainly interacts with two other characters – Bud, his boss who is the executive vice president of the company, and Kate, Zagrum’s president. Both Bud and Kate take time out of their busy schedules to train Tom about “the box”, which is self-deception.

The gist of the book is that much conflict between people is based on self-betrayal and self-deception. It comes from viewing other people as objects, as “things” that either help or hinder our own progress. The self-deception is that we are more important than other people and that they only exist to help us (or at least not stop us) self-actualize (I’m using different terms than used in the book; the author(s) of the book are not particularly fond of the humanistic concept of self-actualization, by the way). However, we deceive ourselves when we think that if we want to have improved relationships with others – especially if they are strained – then it is others who need to change and not ourselves.

Self-betrayal occurs, according to the author(s), when we are not true to that part of ourselves that is other-centered; this results inĀ self-centeredness. In the book the author(s) give an example of how self-betrayal occurs. I’ll summarize that example.

At night a husband and wife are sleeping. The husband wakes up when the baby in the other room starts to cry. The husband’s first thought is to get up and get the child before his wife wakes up; after all, she works so hard all day and needs all the sleep she can get. The husband’s next thought though is that he too works hard all day and needs to get up early for a meeting. “Why should I get up? My responsibility in this family is to go to work and earn money so we can live. I need all the sleep I can get so I can function at my job – I have a big project to complete tomorrow. [Baby continues to cry]. Why doesn’t my wife get up and get that baby? Doesn’t she realize I need to get sleep? Okay, I know she’s awake now. Why doesn’t she get up? Now she’s just being lazy. [And so on].

These types of thoughts often become self-fulfilling prophecies, such that all our our own actions and thoughts inflate our self-worth (i.e., we do see ourselves as good, hard-working people) while simultaneously deflating the self-worth of another (i.e., we attribute certain attributes to them – “lazy” or “inconsiderate” – and then much of what we see them do after that only supports that hypothesis). While this specific example has not occurred with everyone, we have all experienced similar situations. Maybe the situation is at work where you had a thought that you should do something but then didn’t do it. When it created a problem you were able to rationalize your behavior and blame someone else (“I would have done X had Susan done her job” or “I was just too busy with other things to get X done.”). Basically, self-betrayal results from not being true to what you [hopefully] know is the right thing to do. When we don’t do what we know is right, the normal human response is to rationalize and justify our action or inaction in order to protect our egos, per se. This leads to us shifting the blame from ourselves onto others. We start to view others as hindering our progress; when this occurs they stop being people and start being objects (in other words, people are viewed as either starting blocks or stumbling blocks – they help or hinder us).

It is relatively straightforward to see how this can lead to interpersonal problems – at home or at work. The problem is that we do not know that we are betraying and deceiving ourselves, so we continue to ascribe most of our problems to others. The author(s) further points out that even if we recognize our self-betrayal and self-deception, we never will completely be free of these behaviors; however, we will be able to reduce these negative behaviors and improve our relationships with others.

Overall, this book provides an important and novel way to approach interpersonal behavior. The overarching message is that we should not worry about changing others (or even ourselves! – but I’ll let you read the book to understand that); we should instead recognize that the problem lies within ourselves and go from there. One very creative application of this philosophy is how this is being applied in businesses to increase productivity, human relations, public relations, and even the profitability of the company. I’ll let my readers read this book to understand how this philosophical approach to other-interaction can help a business make more money.

One of my criticisms of this approach to interpersonal behaviors is that it is fairly esoteric and difficult to grasp conceptually. That’s not necessarily a negative; however, it means that most people will really have to study and ponder on the concepts in order to understand them. The book also only serves as a brief – but important – introduction to the topic, leaving one a bit unsure exactly how to implement this new attitude and these new behaviors in one’s own life (although, there is enough information in the book that an astute reader can understand enough to follow this method of interpersonal interaction). This is where the Arbinger Institute’s training workshops and seminars come in. Additionally, C. Terry Warner wrote a book called Bonds That Make Us Free: Healing Our Relationships, Coming to Ourselves, which is a more complete description of the concepts found in Leadership and Self-deception.

I recommend the book Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box to anyone seeking to develop insight about themselves and their interpersonal interactions.