Leaders, Let’s Talk About Self Deception

By Al Gonzalez

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

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It’s always easier to spot bullying behavior in other managers.

What we should be focusing on is our behavior and the fact that we may be intimidating our staff and developing cultures where fear definitely exists.

In this article, I want to share two steps that supervisors can take to determine whether or not their staff is feeling bullied and how to prevent it.

These steps are understanding the concept of self-deception and requesting feedback from direct reports.

A Courageous Leader

A few years back, Franck, one of my best employees, gave me a book called Leadership and Self Deception. I was quickly angered at the gesture as I immediately thought he was telling me that I was self-deceived.  He looked at me with his peaceful countenance and explained that the book had helped him a lot and asked me to trust him.

Reluctantly I took the book and ignored it for a few days, but my angry curiosity pushed me to start reading it.

As I got into it, I remember being angry at him as I continued to get deeper and deeper into “the box” with him.  I vividly remember thinking:

“I am a GOOD BOSS with lots of leadership training! Why is Franck giving ME this book?!?! I don’t need this! He is the one that needs it, NOT ME! I have had PLENTY of leadership training!”

Classic Self Deception…

The book is truly fantastic, and about halfway through reading it, I started realizing that the book was completely about me! My initial anger was a sign of my tendency to make myself the victim and justify my actions.

I developed the graphic below based on some of the illustrations in the book. This content helped me understand how I see myself as that ‘good boss’ and see my staff members as unappreciative workers who were, at times, lazy and poor performers. The full animation can be viewed here.

I realized how self-betrayal was causing me to see myself as the ‘good boss’ and Franck as the bad, lazy employee who didn’t appreciate me.

The reason for the story is that this was the absolute turning point in my career.

After I realized my own self-deception, I became truly open to feedback from him and others.

They were the ones that helped me realize that my warrior shadow tendencies often resulted in them fearing me!

For example, it was easier for me to blame them for not delivering instead of taking responsibility for not providing clear specifications or instructions. It was easier for me to say, “Bring me some options, and I will tell you what I don’t like,” instead of taking the time to clarify my expectations.

In my self-deception, I didn’t want to see my role in the problem. If they brought this up, I would become defensive and upset.  I was the boss, and this caused them fear.

I was definitely bullying them and using my authority to justify it.

Until I understood the concept of self-deception, it was very difficult for me to accept my role in conflict and change my behavior.

Requesting Feedback

An effective way to find out if we are bullying or intimidating our staff members is to invite open and honest feedback from them.

This is a technique I implemented to raise the trust level in the team and help me improve. I made sure everyone understood that my intent was to be a better supervisor.

I wanted them to help me be more effective and to learn from everyone on the team.

I made a commitment to actively listen and avoid becoming defensive. If anyone felt that they could not tell me something in person, we also established an anonymous suggestion box where anyone could submit their views.

It really was not easy for all staff members to share feedback with me even after I promised their input would not come back to hurt them. However, there were a few who took complete advantage of the opportunity and shared candid feedback on how I was using my authority in ways that disturbed them.

For example, my background is in leading web marketing teams; a large part of my team worked on print projects. I had a tendency to refer to the web designers and developers as “rock stars,” and while this was not bullying per se, I was setting the wrong tone.

And yes, there was feedback on how my extroverted and visionary style would intimidate some of my staff members. I was pushing too hard at times, and while I was trying hard not to, I would at times raise my tone or act on incorrect assumptions.

I can’t stress how helpful it was for me to learn this about myself. While it was very difficult for me NOT to justify my behavior, I stuck to the plan, and the feedback helped me work on the quality of my leadership.

I wanted to end my bullying series of articles with specific suggestions that can help supervisors learn about their tendencies and improve the quality of their leadership.  It is imperative to understand that authority makes it too easy for us to intimidate others without even knowing it!

While reading Leadership and Self-Deception and requesting feedback will help immensely, I want to end the article with a key imperative:

Ensure that the staff members feel safe at work.

Accomplishing this will require different actions depending on each workplace, so I want to end by stating the obvious: It takes courage to talk about safety.

Do You Feel Safe At Work?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Al Gonzalez
Al Gonzalez
Al has worked for 16 years helping others maximize the quality of their leadership at Motorola, CBS Sports, and Cornell University. He’s used these experiences to develop trust-based leadership tools for all levels of management.
  • R.D.Choudhary says:

    Most of the leaders are victims of self deception because they operate from their head Center which feeds ego and illusion.Outside acquired knowledge is always deceptive if knowledge of ones real self within is not developed. The burden of acquired knowledge becomes ineffective in the absence inside knowledge. Sadly this component one has to develop himself on a regular basis to deliver extraordinary result.

  • Karin Hurt says:

    I had my entire organization read Leadership and Self Deception. I also blogged about it. Fantastic book. I can’t tell you how many of my employees reached out to me and told me they used it in their personal lives as well. We use the language of “boxes” quite a bit.

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