One of the theories that has impacted my consulting most profoundly over the last several years comes from the work of the Arbinger Institute. The two books from this group have helped guide me to a vision of the absolute practical and financial benefits of collaboration in the workplace. The books are: “The Anatomy of Peace – Resolving the Heart of Conflict,” and “Leadership and Self Deception – Getting out of the Box.” This work offers a relatively unique perspective of how and why collaboration can break down in our relationships.  In both of these books it is suggested that when we engage in any act of self betrayal, i.e., acting in any way against our own sense of what is the right thing to do in any given situation, we naturally begin creating a path of self-deception. We begin fooling ourselves in a way that impedes objectivity and truth.  An act of self-betrayal may be anything from not going out of our way to help someone who may be in need of our help, to not honestly confronting someone or a situation when appropriate, to not acknowledging the truth of a situation. According to Arbinger, when we engage in an act of self betrayal we automatically begin justifying our action. We begin to amplify our own virtues and extend blame to others. We end up in what Arbinger describes as a “box.” The box is a lens through which we objectify others in order to justify ourselves. This is the concept of self deception; we are seeing others through a distorted lens due to our need to justify our own actions. We are not truly seeing them objectively, but amplify their faults and our virtues. We know we are in a box when we objectify others.

I believe most of us end up in this situation at times. Beyond the Arbinger concept I believe we may end up “in the box” for other reasons than self betrayal, such as disappointments or negative experiences with others. Regardless of the cause, I agree that we are “in the box” when we objectify others. This happens in traffic all the time. Think about it – have you ever called someone you don’t even know a name because you were frustrated by their driving (or just by the darn traffic jam)? Do we objectify our leaders or our subordinates in the workplace when they don’t live up to our expectations? The “us/them” that occurs in many workplaces is a process of objectification and justification.

A further concept from Arbinger is that when we are in a “box,” we enter into collusion with others in which we invite the very behaviors we least want from them.  If instead of supporting my co-worker, I regularly correct them, they may begin to resist me. I may in fact, know more than they do and have valuable things to teach them. However, instead of focusing on their success – helping things go right for them, I focus on correcting what they do “wrong.” I may begin to see them as inferior or disinterested. When I do this, I invite greater resistance. The more they resist, the less they learn and the more I have to correct and the more I see them as a problem. This is a circle of collusion in which we are both inviting the very behaviors from one another we least want. This is the opposite of collaboration. Collusion is working around our perceived deficits of others. Collaboration is bringing out the best in one another in partnership.

 The Arbinger theory encourages us to take responsibility for our own box, to get out of our box, focus on helping things go right vs. focusing on correcting others, and to stay out of the box by practicing and acting according to what we know is right.

Once in a training program in which I was describing the Arbinger theory, one of the participants asked me this: “Is it possible for a group to be in a box with an individual or another group?” WOW! What a concept – think about different departments in a workplace that could potentially get into boxes with one another – Sales and Operations, Accounting and Business Development, R&D and I.T. Is there ever generalized objectification and justification between these groups? Do they ever collude in inviting the very behaviors they don’t want from the other? Then we think about even bigger realities like religion and politics…

In my next blog I will examine the Arbinger model applied to groups and politics.

Patrick Hiester MA, LPC
Vice President of BizPsych

References: “Leadership and Self Deception: Getting out of the Box,” “The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict.” The Arbinger Institute.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.