self deceptionThis article is based on the concept of self-deception in the book Leadership and Self Deception by the Arbinger Institute.

I like to conduct this activity in some training courses where I ask the participants to rate themselves as leaders on a scale of 1 to 10. I ask them to write down the score they give to themselves on a piece of paper without showing the score to others. When everyone is done, I ask each individual to tell me their score and then plot this on a line on the board that goes from 1 to 10.  90% of the responses are usually between 7-9. This is people basically saying they’re very good but they hold back just a wee bit to show some humility by not scoring themselves as 10. You may find the odd outlier – a 3 or a 10 – but this is quite rare.

As I point out how all the responses lie within a very narrow zone, the participants start to laugh as they realize that there is a coincidence, a pattern here. I then ask them to do the same exercise but this time imagining how their colleagues would score them. This time, the zone is not 7-9, it is more like 4-6. The question I then ask them is “what is this distance between the 7-9 and 4-6 due to?” The answer of course is self-deception.

As managers and leaders, we like to think we are logical and rational but the truth is that self-deception makes us  justify our sometimes false and invalid beliefs. It is human nature, almost like a survival instinct, to blame others for the problems that occur around us. It is self-deception that blinds us to the true reason for most conflicts.

The Lake Wobegon Effect

In Garrison’s Keillor’s fictional community of Lake Wobegon, “the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

One of the most documented findings in psychology is the average person’s ability to believe extremely flattering things about himself. We generally think that we possess a host of socially desirable traits and that we’re free of the most unattractive ones.

Most people regard themselves to be:

More intelligent than others
More fair-minded
Less prejudiced
Better drivers

This phenomenon is so common that it is now known in social-science circles as the “Lake Wobegon Effect.”

A survey of 1 million high-school seniors found:

Seventy percent thought they were above average in leadership ability.
Only 2% thought they were generally below average.
Sixty percent thought they were in the top 10%.
Approximately 25% thought they were in the top 1%.
A survey of university professors found that 94% thought they were better at their jobs than an average colleague.

While self-confidence is good,  overconfidence and an inflated sense of self-worth can lead to poor relationships. With self-deception, we spend too much time defending and justifying our behavior. Ego takes over and prevents us from communicating an interest in others. In other words, we lack empathy. We might pretend to be interested and concerned, but no matter what we do on the outside, people primarily respond to how we feel about them on the inside.

Understanding how self-deception might be adversely impacting you is a good way to start. Inspired leadership starts once you summon the courage to question your own behavior and motives.