Leadership and Self Deception
Posted on January 5, 2018
The idea at the core of this book is insightful and valid, but the book itself is painful to read because it’s written for an audience that lacks self-awareness or nuance. It’s written in the form of a dialogue, as fiction. There’s a fine old tradition of this going at least as far back as Plato, and that tradition tends to include kind of a dumb-ass who has to be led by the nose from his benighted state to enlightenment. This is fine as ancient literature, but in a modern business book, it comes off as patronizing, and, reading this book, I often felt as if I was reading the script for an infomercial, or as if it was some kind of long-form version of the old Goofus and Gallant cartoons. Basically, I think the ideas in the book could very easily have been purveyed effectively in a much shorter and less annoying form.
Now, on to the idea.
Self-deception in this context occurs when you are dishonest with yourself about why you’re engaging with a person in a negative way. The central example in the book is one of a pair of parents and their baby who wakes them up at night crying. Dad lies there thinking that he should go get the baby so that his wife can sleep, since she spends all day with the baby. But he really doesn’t want to. He’s also tired, and he worked all day, and (he begins to tell himself) she probably napped or watched TV for half the day, and she’s got a history of being lazy anyway, and so on. Basically, because he himself doesn’t want to do the thing he feels as if he actually should do, he begins to make a narrative about his wife that may or may not be true. By not doing the thing he knows he should have done, he has performed a sort of self-betrayal that he then is inclined to justify, and he justifies it by creating a narrative that supports the notion that it is his wife and not he who is in the wrong. It then works to his advantage to believe this narrative, as it helps him further justify his behavior, which makes the narrative that much more important, and so on, in a nasty cycle. The narrative makes it easy to forget that you are yourself guilty in your own ways, which further reinforces the narrative. You then resent the person the narrative pertains to and stop treating them as a person, which increases the odds of your creating false narratives in the future. It just gets worse and worse, and because the narratives feed into your sense of your own rightness or justification, you don’t see it as your own problem, but as a problem with the other person.
The fix? Don’t betray yourself, and treat people as people rather than objects about whom you’re inclined to fabricate nasty narratives.
This all rings true to me. I can think of many times that I’ve been annoyed at people for doing or not doing a given thing, and I’ve made big leaps in how I’ve thought about their behavior and what drove it. This built resentment and no doubt fed into how I engaged with them in the future. I can imagine that avoiding this tendency to assume the worst about people, and avoiding creating (often ridiculous) narratives to prop up my frustrations with the people would help me feel less annoyed (a good minimal first step) and help the relationship overall.
This all applies to work in that we work to achieve results for the company. If we are all looking inward and justifying our silly self-perpetuating narratives about how crummy others are, we’re not focusing on the work. If we’re justifying our failures or behaviors by pointing fingers at others rather than just trying to excel at the work, we’re not devoting ourselves to achieving results.
This doesn’t mean that we have to look the other way when people aren’t excelling. That is, acknowledging somebody else’s failure isn’t necessarily creating false narratives and treating the person badly. It’s only bad if you’re doing it to justify your own behavior, if your opinion and expression of it is focused on you rather than on helping the person excel at the work.
The book proposes that if a company can build a culture around being results-oriented and avoiding this cycle of self-betrayal and self-deception, it’s more likely to succeed. The book suggests that this applies outside the workplace too, and I can sure buy it.