Leaders: Disrupt Self-Deception with Self-Reflection

by Zoe Mackey

January 24, 2019

Business leaders are more respected by their employees than they might think—especially when it comes to their millennial employees.

According to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 44 percent of millennials feel that business leaders have a positive impact on the world in which they live. However, when asked the same about political and religious leaders, the assessment was far less generous, with positive sentiment coming in at 19 and 33 percent respectively.

Though it is clear that millennials believe business leaders have the potential to drive positive change, these expectations are still not being met. In fact, 42 percent still view business leaders as having a negative impact on the world. Herein lies a critical opportunity for business leaders to inspire their young employees by becoming a catalyst for positive change.

This responsibility, however, comes with a caveat: leaders should continue inspiring, motivating, and encouraging employees to build trust. When that trust is broken, employees can easily become disengaged, resulting in high attrition rates and low productivity for the organization.  

What’s worse: Many leaders don’t even realize they are their own worst enemy. The concept of self-deception, outlined in The Arbinger Institute’s Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, describes how people blind themselves to the things that sabotage success. The authors write, “Whether at work or at home, self-deception obscures the truth about ourselves, corrupts our view of others and our circumstances, and inhibits our ability to make wise and helpful decisions.”

The perfect counter to self-deception is self-reflection—leaders examining themselves and their interactions to see what can change for the better. With the new year picking up steam, now is the time to prioritize honest transformation for 2019.

The Self-Deception Trap

Many business leaders believe that the “I say ‘jump,’ you say ‘how high?’” attitude is the only way to manage. However, this philosophy has its flaws, not the least of which is that your reason to say “jump” might be tainted by false assumptions, bad information, and personal biases. Even what might be considered softer, more employee-centric leadership styles can be infiltrated by self-deception. The Arbinger Institute writes, “Of all the problems in organizations, self-deception is the most common, and the most damaging.”

Self-deception doesn’t let leaders see beyond their own priorities or opinions, and ultimately obstructs their ability to lead organizations effectively. Their teams don’t get as much room to grow, productivity suffers, and crises can escalate quickly because leaders might not even realize that problems exist. A character in the fictional narrative presented in Leadership and Self-Deception says, “I was stuck because I had a problem I didn’t think I had—a problem I couldn’t see. I could see matters only from my own closed perspective, and I was deeply resistant to any suggestion that the truth was otherwise.” This reluctance is what holds leaders back. Perhaps the only way out of the box of self-deception is to take inventory of what, or who, is getting in your way. Enter the disruptive power of self-reflection.

Self-Reflection to the Rescue

Self-reflection and the subsequent self-awareness born from the practice encourage leaders to step back and consider how their leadership is affecting the organization and the teams and people they work with. Author Kevin Cashman writes in The Pause Principle, “The transition is one from expertise and control to authenticity and shared purpose. This crucial evolution requires sufficient, intentional pause to build self-awareness, foster team collaboration, and increase strategic innovation. Pause is a catalytic process that has the potential, if practiced consciously, to bring forth transformative shifts …” Self-deception never internalizes the “why” behind actions, decisions, and attitudes, resulting in leaders who fail to take responsibility for their actions. On the other hand, self-reflection not only emphasizes the “why,” but also incorporates it into everything a leader does.

Once self-reflection becomes a mindful and habitual leadership practice, benefits to that person, to coworkers and subordinates, and to the entire organization can blossom. These positive leadership benefits include:

  • Greater understanding of the decisions you make

  • Deeper emotional intelligence, including a stronger empathy for coworkers’ mindsets and what is driving their decisions and reactions

  • Better business results from decisions and relationships rooted more in thoughtfulness and less in impulsiveness or selfishness

  • An improved focus on everyone your leadership affects, from your bosses to your subordinates to customers and prospects

  • Truer personal integrity

  • More persistence and confidence to work through problems when they arise

  • A strong example for coworkers to be self-reflective and overcome their own self-deception

Prioritizing Reflection

Taking time each day for self-reflection is a smart strategy to gain momentum to overcome self-deception, but ultimately, incorporating reflection and pause when tackling complex leadership problems is the best tactic for escaping fromLeadership and Self-Deception’s metaphorical “box.” The book notes, “You’ll need to rethink your work, learn to measure things you never knew needed measuring, and help and report to people in ways you’ve never thought of. You will learn to hold yourself accountable in deep and disciplined ways. … You will discover, through it all, that there is no better way to work, or to live.”

Prioritizing self-reflection turns you into a positive leader that employees—including millennial employees, who demand much from their superiors—trust, respect, and are inspired by. That’s a lofty goal for 2019, but one that can yield benefits all year, in 2020, and beyond.

Topics: Your Team, Leadership

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