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News & Views - Oct  2000 Issue #74

Leadership and Self-Deception 
Getting Out of the Box 
By The Arbinger Institute 
(Berrett-+ Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, 2000) 181pgs. 

Reviewed by Loi Eberle, M.A., 
Educational Consultant & Editor of Woodbury Reports
loi@woodbury.com 208-267-5550 

Syndicated Columnist and Pulitzer Prize Winner, Jack Anderson, said of this book, “I can’t think about my life the same again.” Though I assumed this was typical book cover hype, I was still curious because some of my clients with children in the Anasazi program had mentioned the book. It’s conversational style allowed for rather quick reading, even in the wee hours of the morning, so I started the first chapter. After a few pages, it began to dawn on me that indeed, the book could provide some beneficial insights, and the book deserved a thorough reading. 

This book is a result of the Arbinger Institute’s collaboration with the Anasazi program, a short-term emotional growth wilderness program for adolescents. Anasazi worked with the Arbinger Institute to develop the materials used in their parent workshops and with the students during the expedition. Terry Warner, a philosopher and professor at Brigham Young University, who founded the Arbinger Institute, had two children who completed the Anasazi program. The new level of communication with his children and the insights he attained as a result of that program played a pivotal role in the development of this book. 

Arbinger” is the ancient French spelling of the word “harbinger” as in “foreshadowing what is to come.” The institute has chosen the name Arbinger to symbolize its role as a forerunner, a “harbinger” of change. Their goal is to “break new ground in solving the age-old problem of self-deception, or what was originally called resistance.” The institute asks: “How can people simultaneously 1) create their own problems, 2) be unable to see that they are creating their own problems, and yet 3) resist any attempts to help them stop creating those problems?” According to the Arbinger Institute, this phenomenon is at the heart of much organizational failure. This management training and consulting firm and scholarly consortium has received praise from a variety of well-known corporate clients, some of whom contacted them after their children completed the Anasazi program. After seeing how the Anasazi had improved their interaction with their children, they wanted to apply these principles to their organization. 

The Arbinger Institute worked with the Anasazi program to develop the book, LEADERSHIP AND SELF-DECEPTION, as a way of presenting this material. It is delivered via conversations between the book’s characters, a presentation style that reduce a reader’s defensiveness, since as we all know, it’s easier to see a behavior in others than it is to see it in one’s self. When self-deception is put in the context of “other people doing these things,” readers can be more receptive to what the book elucidates. By focusing on the character’s experiences, perhaps an insight might possibly leak through – “aha, I guess I might be doing this too!”

The book portrays the efforts of the leadership team of the fictitious “Zagum” company to teach a new team member about their unique management style. The team members use examples of their own family conflicts to demonstrate how the new member has been “in the box” with his co-workers. 

Even though most of us value honesty and think we are being honest in our relationships, the book effectively clarifies how we get “in the box” with other people. What does this mean? The book explains that when a person is “in the box,” he or she is operating under the assumption that his or her reaction to another person is honest and sensible. Actually, however, the person in the box is unconsciously distorting the other person’s motivations and actions in order to defend his or her “in the box” viewpoint. The distortion and justification, of course, is done unconsciously. The person “in the box” is convinced that his or her actions and responses are perfectly justified. 

According to the book, sometimes people “collude” to keep each other in the box by subtly encouraging each other’s behavior to conform to their expectations. They are influenced by each other’s cues, and behave in the expected way, thus validating and vindicating the other’s negative viewpoint. The characters in the book describe how they often have done this with their own children. 

The leader of the “Zagum Company” describes how he learned to break through the long maintained and painful communication barriers between himself and his son. This moving passage is based on the actual experiences of Arbinger Institute’s founder when his son completed the Anasazi program. Parents can’t help but hope that a similar experience might occur with their own child. 

So how does a person “get in the box?” The book says, through self-betrayal, that is, by responding to a person or an organization in a way that is “contrary to how one should.” Reacting inappropriately to a person or organization causes the “self-betrayer” to “be in the box” and causes him or her to unconsciously justify the reason for not responding in the desired way. This in turn causes the person in the box to create a distorted perception of the other person or organization. Of course the very nature of distortion is such that people don’t realize their own distorted viewpoint. 

How does one get “out of the box?” The book is pretty clear on what DOESN’T work: “trying to change others; doing my best to cope with others; leaving; communicating, implementing new skills or techniques and changing my behavior.” Oh, oh, that doesn’t leave too many options. Instead, the book leaves the reader slightly off-guard and humbled: “question your own virtue.” Question how your distorted view of the situation is affecting how you are responding. Question your willingness to see a person in a way that vindicates your self-betrayal, rather than attempting to understand who the person really is. 

The book ends with advice about how to “live the material.” For example, it says, “don’t use the vocabulary — “the box” and so on – with people who don’t already know it.” Certainly the book could be considered vague and theoretical, perhaps even far- fetched and easy to denigrate. It is it difficult to explain the book’s ideas to others without resorting to personal anecdotes. This makes sense, because the book is designed, I suspect, as a tool to be used to experience personal insight, rather than to be used to convey specific rules and or techniques. 

The whole reason to “get out of the box” is to be able to see “people…as people” which the book suggests is the key to helping organizations operate more effectively. This might seem to be an extreme and perhaps simplistic statement. Yet it is often pointed out that many problems in organizations are usually not due to a lack of expertise, rather, problems arise when experts attempt to work together. 

“The thing that divides fathers from sons, husbands from wives, neighbors from neighbors – is the same thing that divides coworkers from coworkers as well. Companies fail for the same reason families do…both are organizations of people.” Leadership and Self-Deception ends with the advice that until we “get out of the box” and the distortions it causes, “we don’t know who we work and live with.”

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