By Julie Fleming Brown
An infant is learning to crawl. She begins by pushing herself backward around the house. Backing herself around, she gets lodged beneath the furniture. There she thrashes about — crying and banging her little head against the sides and undersides of the pieces. She is stuck and hates it. So she does the only things she can think of to get herself out — she pushes even harder, which only worsens her problem. She’s more stuck than ever.
If this infant could talk, she would blame the furniture for her troubles. She, after all, is doing everything she can think of. The problem couldn’t be hers. But of course the problem is hers, even though she can’t see it. While it’s true she’s doing everything she can think of, the problem is precisely that she can’t see how she’s the problem. Having the problem she has, nothing she can think of will be a solution.
Self-deception is like this.
Leadership and Self-Deception is written as a parable. Although it includes a number of illustrative figures, the book’s theme is presented in the context of the protagonist’s experience, which has never been my favorite kind of book. I much prefer books that state the premise and then use examples to illustrate. Because I so dislike the parable approach, I wouldn’t have finished Leadership and Self-Deception had I not already heard so many rave reviews. But here I am reviewing it and recommending it to you. There’s a useful message packed into this book: to use Einstein’s words, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
Tom Callum, the protagonist, had been on the job as a senior manager of the Zagrum Company for two months when he was called to meet with executive vice president (and Harvard Law graduate) Bud Jefferson. That meeting, which stretched over several days, forms the basis of Leadership and Self-Deception and presents the strategies key to Zagrum’s success.
Bud explains that self-deception is the root of most interpersonal problems. When we fail to do something for another that we know we should do, we betray ourselves and begin to resist the other person; to justify that resistance, we begin to blame. When we blame, we begin to see others in a way to justify that blame, and then we are “in the box.” When “in the box,” we cease to see reality (we deceive ourselves) and instead create negative interactions with others, shifting focus from attaining mutually beneficial results to blaming one another for failing to achieve results. In short, to use the book’s summary of its lessons (from page 102):
- An act contrary to what I feel I should do for another is called an act of “self-betrayal”.
- When I betray myself, I begin to see the world in a way that justifies my self- betrayal.
- When I see a self-justifying world, my view of reality becomes distorted.
- So – when I betray myself, I enter the box.
- Over time, certain boxes become characteristic of me, and I carry them with me.
- By being IN the box, I provoke others to be in the box.
- In the box, we invite mutual mistreatment and obtain mutual justification. We collude in giving each other reason to stay in the box.
The only way “out of the box” is to stop resisting the other person and to do the things we believe we should do for that person.
A brief example may help to clarify. Years ago, I read about a woman riding the subway and feeling incredibly annoyed by two small children running around and screaming while their father sat silently nearby and did nothing to discipline them. The woman thought (as, I suspect, many of us would) how rude the man was, what a lousy parent he must be to allow his children to be so disruptive, how thoughtless and irresponsible he was. After reaching her boiling point, she said something to the man about his children yelling and the man snapped out of his reverie and said quietly, “I’m sorry, we’re coming home from the hospital where my wife just died.” In that moment, of course, everything shifted and the woman’s anger evaporated because she saw the man differently. She jumped out of the box.
Lawyers can relate
Back to the parable: Leadership and Self-Deception includes a legal example, in which Bud Jefferson (the story’s teacher) recounts his experience of being a young associate working on his first research project, which culminated in his drafting a memo to provide urgent guidance to a client. The senior associate (described in the story as soon to be reviewed for partnership) passed the memo on to the partner and asked Bud two weeks later whether he’d checked the pocket parts when he did the research. He hadn’t, and the law had changed completely, rendering the memo absolutely wrong.
The senior associate called the partner and told him that she had made an error, never mentioning Bud’s failure to check the pocket parts. Had the senior associate blamed Bud, she would have failed to take responsibility for her own error (not asking a brand-new lawyer whether he’d checked the pocket parts, as she knew she should), thus betraying herself, thus putting herself “in the box” and likely spending time explaining why the error was Bud’s fault and not focusing on getting the correct information to the client right away.
Instead, she was “out of the box” and didn’t blame Bud (though she surely could have); Bud felt his responsibility for the mistake more keenly because the senior associate didn’t blame him and put him on the defensive; and she created a relationship in which he would go to great lengths not to let her down. Both Bud and the senior associate were focused on the result for the client rather than on themselves.
Applications for lawyers
Imagine using these concepts (but not the “in the box”/”out of the box” language) to help a client see that a problem previously viewed as insurmountable is actually amenable to a solution short of litigation. Or, perhaps, helping the client to understand why a negotiation tanked, and to suggest a party-to-party approach that could get it back on track.
Imagine a contentious partners’ meeting. Is it possible that some of the challenges arise from self-deception? Again, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest using the language (and certainly not accusing a partner of being “in the box”), but the concepts could help to open a route for productive discussion.
The concepts set out in Leadership and Self-Deception are simple, though not necessarily easy, to apply. Since most of what lawyers do revolves around communicating and working with others, opportunities to use the learning abound.
The bottom line
The takeaway for me is to watch for moments when I catch myself blaming someone. When I catch myself in blame, that’s a red flag that the focus is on me rather than on results. If I can pause and look at the underlying situation – what’s my responsibility, what do I know I should do – I can often stop the blame and move to the task at hand more effectively. It works both professionally and personally, and the changes can be rather dramatic. I highly recommend Leadership and Self-Deception.
Julie Fleming-Brown, J.D., A.C.C. providesattorney development coaching for associates and partners, and she is aspeaker for law firm retreats and workshops. Topics on which shecoaches and speaks include professional development, businessdevelopment, leadership development, career management, and work/lifeintegration. Julie holds a coaching certificate from the GeorgetownLeadership Coaching program and holds the Associate Certified Coach(ACC) credential from the International Coach Federation. She iscertified to administer the DISC(r) assessment, the Leadership CircleProfile 360, and the Leadership Culture Survey. Julie writesextensively on matters of interest to lawyers on the Life at the BarBlog at http://www.LifeAtTheBar.com/blog.
To learn more, to subscribe to Julie’s weekly email newsletter Leadership Matters for Lawyers, or to request a complimentary consultation with Julie, please visit http://www.LifeAtTheBar.com/ or call her at 800.758.6214.
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