A Review and Critique of Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute

Review by R. Preston McAfee, July, 2010

Executive Summary: L&SD is an engagingly written parable about an important aspect of leadership. The key insight is that we have a tendency to turn people into objects and not recognize their aspirations, desires, frustrations and general humanity, and that this tendency creates a vicious cycle that damages performance. It is well worth the two hour time investment needed to read it. Skip the preface.

Review and Critique:

L&SD tells the story of Tom, a new executive at the successful Zagrum Corp, who gets a full day of leadership training with his boss, and some helpers. The book chronicles this day, an experience that is a cross between My Dinner with Andrei and John Fowles' The Magus. It is a gentle version of what pop psychologists call an intervention, where a group focuses on a person to get the person to recognize a problem and take responsible action.

If you've never heard of self-deception, AKA lying to oneself, the story will be an eye-opener. But you likely have encountered self-deception. Most self-destructive or indulgent acts, like smoking, gambling, or heavy drinking, are accompanied by a litany of self-deceptions, like ‘One more won't hurt.’

It is peculiar that the book is written not by a person but by an institute. One expects a book by an institute to be akin to a design not just by a committee, but a very large committee. Anyone who has read a European Union report knows how dreadful institutional writing can be. Length is proportional to the number of contributing authors, thoughtfulness inversely proportional. A camel is a duck designed by an institute. So either The Arbinger Institute is a very small institute or, more plausibly, there is a Mr. The A. Institute. Perhaps The is an abbreviation of Theodore.

The book is told as a story, which makes for an easy read. Tom has a frosty relationship with his wife and is nearly estranged from his son. He throws himself into work, but at his previous company his boss took credit for his and others' contributions and discouraged his team members, so even his work has not been rewarding, so he is excited about his new position with Zagrum. He's got a lot wrong in his life and no awareness that he contributes to it.

The intervention starts with the human tendency to treat others like objects, such as ‘the jerk in car in front of me’ or ‘the idiot who deleted that file.’ Such treatment has been going on a long time, judging by the number of our ancestors who were named after their occupations, like Smith, Potter or Institute. The first point the book develops is that this objectification leads to systematic mistakes. The book only emphasizes one mistake, though there are others: objectification of others opens the door for us to tell ourselves a story in which we are the good guy and the others are bad guys. Such a story is appealing because it makes us feel good – we do everything right while others wreck it. Such a self-justification locks in an erroneous view of the world in which we over-exalt ourselves and blame others for problems. This story, while attractive and widely believed, is rarely correct. Few people actually set out to be the bad guy, as required by the story. It is even less likely in a family or corporate setting. How many people join companies with the purpose of obstructing the company's progress? None. So Tom first learns to think differently about his fellow workers who, even when they make mistakes, are trying to do the right thing. Viewing others as people – people like yourself with desires, skills, aspirations, pet peeves, flaws, insight, itches, blind spots, foibles, skin rashes, and moments of irritability – is simply accurate. Moreover, viewing others as people prevents the mindset that you are the good guy in the story of your life, and you are surrounded by incompetence and evil.

The book is quite a pleasant read. For example, there is an entertaining part where Tom shakes his fist at another driver, only to recognize the driver as his neighbor. He feels sheepish. Later the same day he resists such an overt display of irritation and just glares at another driver, only to find it’s the same neighbor. Perhaps it is a comment on my driving that I identify so closely with Tom in this setting.

There are a number of points where the book’s story strains credibility. Tom eventually recognizes that he has contributed to the problems in his family which leads him to bring home barbecue. Improbably, this simple act spawns his best family night in decades. Either the problems weren't as deep as portrayed or he's deluding himself about the success. And that is the problem with delusions – just when you think you have finally woken up from a nightmare, you find yourself naked in your elementary school classroom, or bringing home barbecue.

Self-justification is referred to as being "in the box," a somewhat unfortunate choice of phrase owing to several alternate meanings. It would have been better to use Jimi Hendrix's term, "a room full of mirrors," which better captures the fact that the box is focused on the self, and that the outside world has been caricatured into cartoons.

The discussion emphasizes that Tom bears personal responsibility to do his best no matter what the circumstances. Tom often blames his boss or his wife for preventing him from succeeding. But the perspective taught to Tom is that this blame game is actually hiding his own responsibility and his failures to act. Tom is using blame of others as an excuse for not doing his best.

Tom raises various objections to these insights, which are readily demolished. And appropriately the book emphasizes that perfection is not a target. Perfection is a trap for a relatively subtle reason.

The book would have us appreciate others as they really are. In doing so, the biggest obstacle is the convenient belief, believing something not because it is true, but because it makes us feel good. Such beliefs, which often take the form ‘I'm good because...,’ are suspect because we have a reason for believing them other than their truth. This doesn't make such beliefs false, but we should be leery of them. The problem with perfection is that succeeding invites the convenient belief ‘I'm good because I see always others as they really are.’ But to believe this is to succumb to the mother of all convenient beliefs: I'm good because I have risen above convenient beliefs.

At this point it is worth asking, which the book just assumes, whether people who have removed the blinders of convenient beliefs and self-justification, and who see people as they really are, actually make better managers. Unfortunately, with this question we slam into research that strongly suggests that depressed people have a more accurate view of the world than the rest of us. Indeed, seeing the world the way it really is may be a recipe for depression. Thus, while this question is not settled, seeing the world clearly may not be the business boon assumed in the book.For a really nice summary with references, see this site.

The book contains few actionable insights. Indeed, it says it is about thinking differently, not necessarily behaving differently. Behavior may change as you think differently, but need not. The emphasis on thinking differently, with no implications for behavior, is frustrating and glib. It is a lot easier to fire the underperforming operator of workstation 6 than Bill, whose son has cystic fibrosis. It may be true that when you fire #6, you have fired Bill, but it is a lot easier to fire #6. Doctors are lampooned for the way they refer to patients – the appendix in room 117 – but it may actually help them do their jobs clearly and impartially. To say that a manager can resist excuses equally well after appreciating the humanity of the workforce is at best misleading and probably a self-justifying whopper on the authors’ part.

At the same time, there are actionable behaviors that flow from the book's central insight which are not developed. It is not just about thinking. A simple example: it is best to be honest with your employees even when this isn't in the company's short-term interest. Being honest with employees is often hard – it requires difficult conversations. Sometimes honesty doesn't seem to be in the company's interest. Let me give an example. Bill operates a lathe at the company's Seattle plant. The company decides that it will shut down this plant and outsource production nine months hence. Should the company give Bill advance warning? If it does, Bill will start looking for another job immediately and may leave months before the plant closes. Were Bill an object, we'd keep him until the plant closed and then sell him for scrap. But Bill is a person, and by keeping his layoff secret, we harm him considerably, because he doesn't get the luxury of looking for appropriate work. Overall the long-term interest of the company is best served by honesty, since the company that deals fairly and well with its employees will have trusting and enthusiastic employees, and the company that doesn’t, won’t. Seeing employees as people rather than objects has actionable implications.

Beyond honesty, a second implication is that people's choices reveal a lot about them, especially their motivations and goals. This is useful information in dealing with people, especially people who may not understand their own motivations well. To pretend the self-deception insight is only about thinking differently and not about behaving differently in response isn't plausible.

To give a third implication, in my experience executives often misjudge their rivals, and rarely think of them as people like themselves. Most often the mistake is to expect to out-think equally capable rivals. Thinking of your rivals as people similar to yourself is often crucially helpful in formulating strategy.

A nice aspect of L&DS is that its prescription is equally about how we interact with friends and family as it is about company life. Any prescription worth following probably is applicable to home and office, except you probably shouldn't go barefoot to work, even if shoeless is fine at home. In both home and office settings, appreciating others as people and taking personal responsibility are appropriate recommendations.

The book has a second major insight beyond the trap of self-justification: two people in this mode interact in an addictive and destructive way. The boss with an incompetent employee finds herself closely monitoring the employee and micromanaging him, while the employee finds care and initiative aren't rewarded. In this way the employee feeds the manager by behaving incompetently, thus justifying the manager's choice to second-guess every action and micromanage the employee, and conversely, the manager's behavior reinforces the employee's view that effort is not rewarded. This is pretty similar to what pop psychologists call co-dependence. It is worth knowing about.

L&DS suffers from the standard problem common to almost all books aimed at executives. The book suggests that it is only thing you need to know. I think of this as the ‘Everything I needed to know about management I learned from sailing with my cat’ phenomenon. Most popular business books, and indeed even most unpopular business books, have a single insight. This insight, which is useful in some circumstances, is presented as the Fountain of Youth, the Secret of Life, the First Commandment, and the unified field theory rolled up into one pithy idea. Ironically, such elevation of a good insight into the only insight damages its utility substantially, because it prevents a discussion of the limitations of the insight. Virtually all insights have a set of situations where the insight is applicable. This is why aphorisms – a stitch in time saves nine – have counter-aphorisms – look before you leap. By pretending an insight is universal, we actually prevent understanding how best to use the insight. L&DS suffers most severely from overvaluing itself in the preface, which why I suggest not reading the preface. (It is a delicious irony that the book violates its own principles by extreme self-aggrandizement.)

L&DS avoids the second problem common to popular business books. In most business books, only the first chapter has value, and the rest of the book is a redundant repetition of the insight presented there. Indeed, it is clear that the other chapters in business books usually exist only because publishers would be embarrassed to publish a seven page book. Unlike popular business books, L&DS contains no filler and is worth reading to the end.

Even if you were already familiar with self-deception and co-dependency, the ideas are worth revisiting and are enjoyably exposited. L&DS is worth reading, flaws and all.

Ultimately, this book is about choosing sincerity over solipsism. As Jean Giraudoux said, "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made."

You might also enjoy The Meeting Terminator.