The Box of Self-Deception

by  John E. Smith  |  Self Leadership
The Box of Self-Deception

Identify someone with a problem and you’ll be identifying someone who resists the suggestion that he has one.  That’s self-deception – the inability to see that one has a problem. (The Arbinger Institute in Leadership and Self-Deception, 2nd ed., p. 17)

We are “in the box,” as the Arbinger folks say, when we engage in certain behaviors which create or reinforce our self-deception.

Of course, I’m not sure that the above is always the case. A leader who has a problem may be so self-aware, self-confident, and self-effacing that he or she simply acknowledges reality by making amendments and correcting their behavior.

However, most of us are not quite that perfect, so “the box appears to fit” in many cases, so to speak.

This is a prime example of how deceiving others leads to self-deception. We change perceptions of who or what is to blame, and, in the process, convince ourselves that we are still okay. Self-deception is linked to our level of responsiveness to various aspects of work in many ways.

Here are three of those many that I feel are particularly critical ways in which we deceive ourselves about what we do and who we are:


I often focus on the difference between being busy and being productive in my coaching work. This is as much for myself as for others, because we all suffer to some degree from falling into a period of great effort, which produces the appearance of great effort, but produces little or no actual measurable results. Eventually, we may even collapse into a puddle of depleted energy cells … without having actually accomplished anything.

Being busy should not be an end in itself, but it is often used as a mask to hide our reluctance to engage with the more powerful and potentially productive activities. Being busy is usually being safe.

We respond to activity, rather than outcomes.


There’s an old saying of which I am quite fond, that goes something like this: “He has been with us twenty years, but has one year of experience repeated twenty times” to show that measuring experience by length alone does not help us. Many organizations have employees who fit this description, not in the exact number of years of service, but in the outdated education they use. We live in a world where information changes at a blinding speed and what we learned a while ago becomes outdated easily.

If you think a college degree from thirty years ago qualifies you for today’s marketplace, you are simply fooling yourself. I cherish my degrees earned at various schools over the years, and I use bits of information I learned a long time ago on a regular basis.

But if I depend on my initial college degree to provide any credibility, I am simply fooling myself.

Even up-to-date information can be abused. We have also probably experienced The Gatekeeper – that employee who knows many things about the organization. They are sometimes the archivist or primary record keeper of valuable information and sometimes just the vice president’s executive assistant … the point is they use their knowledge as power to maintain their position.

The Gatekeeper may be benevolent or malevolent, but their primary tool is closely guarded information and their primary mission is to keep it that way.

We focus on hoarding information and not on growing or spreading it.


We play “The Great American Blame Game”, as I have heard it called. I would guess that other countries and cultures have very similar games to be played, because this stems from a very human desire to avoid punishment. While understandable, it is not particularly emotionally or psychologically healthy, since avoiding responsibility is based on not accepting reality, but manipulating perceptions.

There are at least three significant outcomes from shifting responsibility to others or to circumstances:

We get really good at doing so, to the point of automatic response. Not accepting responsibility becomes our default position. This is not a positive skill set to develop.

We temporarily avoid the negative consequences that often accompany responsibility. Note the use of the word “temporarily” here … it’s key. As the very old saying goes, “What goes around, comes around.”

We miss the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and make better ones in the future. This is the worst outcome from not accepting responsibility for outcomes.  If we do not learn, we repeat our behavior, even when it produces negative results.

We concentrate on avoiding, rather than on learning and growing.


None of the above is probably any type of revelation to you.  Observant people in any organization will nod knowingly as they read my words, because these situations and behaviors are commonplace.

Even though self-deception is around us and maybe in us, we should not simply accept or support self-deception, in ourselves or others. The first important element of actual change is to create awareness and the first place to create awareness is within ourselves.

How have you deceived yourself in a past work situation?  

How are you deceiving yourself now?  

What can you do to change that?


Inspiration for this post came from a Responsiveness assessment from Tom Krapu, to whom I am indebted.

What advice would you give someone wanting to move on from self-deception?
Photo Credit: PresenterMedia.Com

About The Author

Articles By john-smith
I enjoy helping people learn and grow through intentional, strategic, and social interventions. I coach, teach, train, facilitate, organize, write, speak, design, and lead at the intersection of leadership, learning, and human behavior. I am a CCE Board Certified Coach (BCC) with specializations in both Leadership/Business and Life/Personal coaching. My primary blog is The Strategic Learner on Wordpress.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Amy Kay Watson  |  28 Apr 2016  |  Reply

I so love the work Arbinger does and thank you for lifting it up! What has struck me most about self-deception and life ‘in the box’ is that it’s a personal recognition of how easy it is to view other human beings as objects or obstacles. Why is it so hard to recognize people as people whose values, needs, desires, and priorities are just as valid as my (our) own?

As easy as it might be to say this theoretically, in daily living practice it’s hard!
–That idiot on the road in front of me (not that human on the road);
–that moron who’s standing indecisively in front of the ONE PRODUCT I came into the grocery store to buy;
–that child or that parent who *just doesn’t get it*.

Any time I am more aware of my own goals rather than someone else’s needs I run the risk of treating others as objects.

And that’s the problem that I don’t realize I don’t have.

So every day becomes a practice of recognizing that I’m in the box toward someone and asking myself “What if their needs and desires are just as valid as my own? How would that change my approach–my way of being–here?”

John E. Smith  |  28 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Amy – thanks for your thoughtful and enjoyable comments:)

I loved your real-world examples of how we objectify others in our daily doings, even as I was wincing slightly because I recognized myself and could even visualize the grocery store aisle where it happened.

The word that popped into my mind as I continued to read your thoughts was “empathy”. It’s much easier to feel sympathy for another, because you are keeping yourself at a distance.

Empathy requires that you really try to internalize how that other person experiences the world. Recognizing that other people have goals, desires, and dreams too is a good first step.

Appreciate your engaging contribution:)


Mary C. Schaefer  |  28 Apr 2016  |  Reply

What a great post, John, to begin to wrap up our month’s theme of leadership and self-deception. Just because you hit on some common self-deceptions doesn’t mean that we all don’t need reminders and nudge to open our eyes and recommit to awareness and responsibility.

I like this line the best: “Being busy is usually being safe.” That is so true. I’m going to borrow shamelessly and share and share. Reminds me of “Activity alone doesn’t produce results.”

My Best,

John E. Smith  |  28 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Mary – as always, I welcome your thoughts and reactions:)

Two excellent lines to remember and share … upon reading your reply, I immediately thought of “Better safe than sorry” and was struck by how that follows logically from the first line “Being busy is usually being safe”.

Security is a basic human need, so it is logical that if an activity (appearing busy) results in feeling safe, we are going to do it. The unspoken result of being safe is that we lose opportunities to be happy, to make connections with others, and to experience life more fully, which are also basic human needs.

Maybe our approach to recognizing and reducing our self-deceptions has to include both building awareness of when our logic is not completely valid and becoming able to see not just what we are gaining, but what we are losing … a broader picture.

Now you have my intellectual motor going – thanks:)


Kenneth Baucum  |  28 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Fantastic article! Thank you so much. These are very important points to keep in mind.

John E. Smith  |  28 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Kenneth:)

Thanks so much for your kind words. I appreciate your response.

Yes, this is one of those bed-rock issues for leaders and people in general. I am in awe of the Arbinger Institute’s ability to provide us with much-needed clarity and help as we all struggle to get out of the boxes we throw ourselves into.


Chris Edmonds  |  30 Apr 2016  |  Reply

Great post, John! If we’re not learning, we’re not contributing. We humans delude ourselves about so much in this life – great job highlighting how we can evolve, grow, and serve!


John E. Smith  |  01 May 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Chris – thanks for your comments – much appreciated:)


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