There’s a good chance you’re the person I’m writing this article about. How do I know? Because after 30 years of military service, I discovered I’m that person too.
I am guilty of the “blindness paradox”—what happens when we have a problem but are blind to it. People who are most in need of help often resist the notion that they could be part of the issue. I’ve experienced this for most of my career. In Leadership and Self-Deception, by the Arbinger Institute, this blindness is called self-deception or “being in the box.” The “box” is like a wall of mirrors, often curved to make us look different—sometimes better and other times worse—than we really are.
At the same time, these mirrors keep us from seeing and being alert to others’ needs, hopes, and challenges. These mirrors, because of their distortion, keep us from seeing how we appear to others—how we show up at work, home, and in the community. When we're in the box, others are objects to us, not people, and we're often completely unaware that we see them this way.
I see my boxed self in other leaders and hear about it often. Comments like “My boss needs this training!” or “Why am I here and not my boss?” are common. Others see it too. Just recently, a colonel who leads an internal training/performance team for a military organization with more than 100,000 people shared, “Those with great leadership reputations whose units are performing well are always asking us for help while those struggling the most seldom ask for it.” This is the blindness paradox at work.
During the Association for Talent Development (ATD) International Conference and Expo in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, I spoke with dozens of training professionals. They represented companies who employ from 50 to more than 100,000 individuals. From these conversations, a recurring problem surfaced: They had senior executives who had been to all the top leadership training schools yet were not very good with people and resisted any suggestion that they needed additional training. This same group of executives often responds to new leadership development opportunities in this way: “That's great stuff, but I don't need it. Let's look at training for [people below me].”
Do you see self-deception? Jim Ferrell, managing partner at Arbinger, said recently, "People don’t respond to what we say or even to how we say it as much as they respond to their sense of our regard for them. That ‘regard’ is either as a person or as an object." The majority of our present leadership development programs do not explore this facet of mindset—how we see others. They predominantly approach leadership purely as a behavioral issue.
This is why, despite high-level leadership development and the use of governing tools and techniques to engage with others, we can fail to be as effective as our education suggests we should be. In fact, when others don’t respond the way we think they should due to our skills in leadership, we are convinced they are the problem—not recognizing that the dissonance being created is from their sense of how we truly regard them. It gets worse! Most of us don't realize we see them this way!
It is therefore imperative that we understand how easily and often we objectify people and learn instead to see people as people.