December 16th, 2015


Once upon a time, in a corporation not so far away ...

One of the less frequent pathways for books to get into my to-be-read piles is via “coaching”, or the “highly recommended” route. As I am coachable, I will often heed these sorts of “suggestions”, and I recently picked up a couple of books that one of the head guys at my recent “financial education” project was singing the praises of.

Of course, one guy's “must read” book can be another guy's “meh” read, and this one was, unfortunately, sort of in that category. As regular readers of this space may recall, I don't synch particularly well with “parable” sorts of things … if you're going to tell me something, tell me it outright, don't make me have to tease it out of some cute story! Needless to say, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box is one of those “teaching stories” that I can never seem to get the point of. What's also irritating about this book (which has sold over a million copies and has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon – so it certainly has its fans, and I'm an obvious “outlier” when it come to this style of writing) is that it's not credited to a person but to something called The Arbinger Institute. One would think a “cute story” book would be coming out from some touchy-feely individual trying to mess with your mind by doing an end-around on your rational faculties, and not an organization, so I was constantly having to filter for what they were trying to sneak into my head!

That said, this was a much less aggravating “parable” than most things I've read in that format. It was flirting with actually being useful in that parts of the book involve stuff written on a whiteboard, which ebbed and flowed over the course of the story (stuff getting erased, replaced, updated, etc.) … which, while never quite getting to an actual bullet list, at least has a certain periodic linearity to it that allows for a less-arcane method of extraction of the main points. I suspect that if one stripped away all the story elements here, you could distill what they were trying to convey in a dozen or so pages … and I really wish they had included an appendix for the “parable-averse” reader along those lines. Again, as regular readers of these reviews know, I've read nearly zero fiction over the past dozen years, so I really am not a “story person” … I suspect that this was set up the way it was because there are LOTS more fiction readers out there than serious non-fiction book readers, and most of those people wouldn't ever think of picking up the sort of psychological study that this book could have been, so it's a way of sugar-coating the material for the masses.

Anyway, this is a tale about an executive who is finally hired by this company that he's been admiring (and competing against) for a long time. Early on in his new job, he is put into a one-on-one training situation with a senior executive to get him up to speed with how the company culture works. They have a theory called “the box” (confusingly, not like the popular concept of “thinking outside the box”), and insist on having all their people on board with this. Of course, as is the endlessly frustrating habit of “parable” books, they never really get out a definition of “the box”, just examples of when one is in or out of it (and in this context, being in the box is bad, and being out of the box is good). About the most direct thing I could find was that it's described at one point as “seeing others as people or seeing them as objects”. Yes, that sounds like “newage sewage”, but at least they point out that everybody is “in the box” to a certain extent, and the difference (at that company) was that they were systematically trying to not be in the box, and attributed their success to the times when they managed to get out of the box.

The second concept here is “self-betrayal”, which, essentially, is when you have a gut feeling about what you should do but don't, and suddenly spin out all sorts of justifications for not doing it. They have this largely set up in interpersonal and home-life examples from the main characters, all of which is just plain unpleasant to read. In a side-bar to one of the “whiteboard” sections they have probably the most straight-forward description of this process (with the added bonus of working in the title concept):
When I betray myself, I enter the box – I become self-deceived

1. Inflate others' faults
2. Inflate own virtue
3. Inflate the value of things that justify my self-betrayal
4. Blame
And, there are different boxes for different situations/relationships, some being momentary, and others being ingrained. Plus, over time certain boxes become characteristic, and one carries them around as regular features of one's personality.

A related concept is “collusion”, where multiple people's “in the box” behavior and attitudes encourage others to be “in the box” as well and “the same pattern of mutual provocation and justification always emerges”. A lot of families (I'd hazard to guess that most) fall into this model, and to a similar extent work relationships. The way they define this is that if one is “out of the box” at work, one's “what-focus” is on achieving results, while when “in the box”, one's “what-focus” is on justification of one's behaviors and attitudes.

While they do discuss how one gets “out of the box”, this is sort of murky and convoluted, with lots of info on what won't work, and only vague stuff about what will … the one thing I was able to identify that directly addressed this was: “You get out of the box as you cease resisting other people.” … but that “resisting” concept was not particularly fleshed out. I guess that was to create something of a cliff-hanger to get you to buy the sequel, of which an 18-page excerpt is included.

As noted, I generally hate having to slog through these sorts of things to try to sift out what the author (or, in this case, organization) is trying to actually say. The concepts here are certainly interesting, and, I think (as much as I was able to dig same out of the damn story) quite important, I just wish it wasn't in a freak'n “parable”. Of course, that's me … you might find this the bestest thing in the whole world.

Since Leadership and Self-Deception is such a popular title, I'm pretty sure that you'd be able to find it in the bigger surviving bookstores, but the on-line big boys currently have the paperback of the 2010 second edition at 40% off of a very reasonable cover price. Despite all my bitching above, I do think this is a very worthwhile read (I just wish it was in a plain presentation – but I guess they wanted to offer up all sorts of “interpersonal” stories and didn't want to be shifting in and out of styles), and would be useful to pretty much anybody.

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