Leadership and Self Deception. A personal question…

This question is really a game. Here is how it works:

  1. Relate a story of a time when you’ve made a mistake.
  2. Retell the story while only relating the actual mistake (without justification).

The question is, “Why might it be difficult to do just Step 2?”

I read Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace from the Arbinger Institute over a year ago thanks to a recommendation from a good friend.  Both books focus on one specific action that is an automatic response of our minds.

Imagine you arrive at your office early as you have some meetings and you want to be well prepared.  You made a special effort today to get in early.  You enter the office building and enter an elevator.  As the doors begin to close, you see somebody enter the main doors and take a couple of steps towards your elevator.  You have an instinct to reach out and push the “hold doors open” button…

…But, you don’t push it.

In the milisecond between my instinct to do right for an other (hold the elevator), and the action of actually pushing the button a fierce debate rages in my head.

“but I came in specially early and need to get to my desk”, “nobody would have held the elevator for me”, “that person should have come in quicker if they really wanted to get the elevator”…

The Arbinger Institute identify the Self Deception process as

  1. Instinct to do right
  2. Not acting on the instinct to do right (Self betrayal)
  3. Making it someone elses fault that you didn’t act (Self Deception)

This is an automatic protection process of our minds.  This is not a process only existant in “bad” people, it is part of the infrastructure of our minds. 

I ask the question at the beginning because I see that for me it is painfully dificult not to justify my mistakes. Have you described your story?

Heather Burton of The Arbinger Institute, who first asked me the question gave the following example of an answer:

This past week, I attended a special Conflict Transformation training. Those of us who flew in for the event shared space in a rented condominium. We bought groceries, together and separately, to make breakfasts and a few dinners, as well as snacks. I bought a big back of lovely seedless black grapes.

On the Tuesday, I noticed someone had kindly rinsed the grapes and put them in a bowl for everyone to enjoy. I offered them around the group as we had our breakfast together, and particularly to Cossie, my colleague from Down Under. He’s a dear friend I don’t see often, and I wanted to share. I think he had a few. They were so sweet and delicious that I ate a lot of them myself.

On about Thursday, after our training session was over and we were back at the condo, I was rummaging in the fridge for “a little something.” That’s when I noticed that there was a bag of grapes still sitting in the bottom of the fridge, unopened. All of a sudden, I realized that the reason the grapes had been washed and put in a bowl on Tuesday was that they were Cossie’s grapes. He had avoided embarrassing me by letting me not only share his grapes, but pretty much eat the whole bag single-handedly.

So, that’s the long story. The mistake, without embellishments and details? I ate Cossie’s grapes.

Now, when I related this story to our group, I added even more colour commentary. When asked to just name the mistake, it was almost physically impossible to just say, “I ate Cossie’s grapes.” Something in me wanted to keep saying things like, “Not realizing there were two bags, I ate Cossie’s grapes” or “The grapes were so delicious that I offered them around, not realizing they were Cossie’s.”

Author: Conor Neill

Hi, I’m Conor Neill, an Entrepreneur and Teacher at IESE Business School. I speak about Moving People to Action.

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