A couple of years ago I had an opportunity to be promoted. I evaluated the role. I had a plan for how I would implement in that role. I talked to the hiring manager (my manager at the time). I talked to my network inside the company. I knew the competition and, in my estimation, I was a better fit for the role and for the direction the organization should take. I was certain I had the position in the bag.
And then, I didn’t get the promotion. One of my peers got the position and became my new boss. I was devastated, humbled, and felt rejected by the organization. Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight (and many conversations while I was still employed at that organization), I know that I was suffering from a few key self-deceptions. I could not see the possibility of failure. I only talked with people in my network who would be most likely to confirm my assumptions. I left no room in my mind for doubt. Doing so, I blocked out the possibility of addressing any weaknesses I presented to the hiring manager.
At that moment, when I didn’t get promoted, I was faced with cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when our beliefs or ideas don’t match our actions or reality. The result is emotional discomfort that we then attempt to resolve. Often, the resolution comes to us through further self-deception. I believed I was going to get the job and then the reality didn’t meet my beliefs. What followed were additional self-deceptions to mitigate the weight of heavy emotions and soothe the pain I was feeling. One of the greatest gifts of this experience was the ability to look back and identify ways I self-deceive and the further turmoil those behaviors cause.
In truth, we all struggle through moments of cognitive dissonance. Sometimes we are aware of it, and most of the time we aren’t. To create cognitive harmony, we usually engage in self-deceptive strategies. Sometimes, our self-deceptions are incredibly useful. For example, when we engage in self-enhancing behaviors like “fake it ‘til you make it” to begin to adopt a new habit. More often, self-deception is toxic. Like when organizations believe their plans are truth despite data that shows we never deliver work when we say we will, which results in a myriad of poor behaviors throughout organizations.
Self-deception is subtle and hard to spot in ourselves. The rest of this post will discuss:
- How to identify self-deceptions and why we use them.
- What impact these behaviors can have on individuals, teams, and organizations.
- Strategies for consciously deciding to engage or not engage in self-deception.
“Knowing is half the battle” ~G.I.Joe
Willful ignorance is a choice not to see information that contradicts our core beliefs. Every unresearched Facebook debate or meme provides an opportunity to identify this particular self-deception.
At work, this looks more like picking a deadline without validating it against empirical evidence or without leveraging the wisdom of the teams doing the work. It can also be things like believing you are the best team member (or worst) without asking your teammates for feedback.
Reality denial has a lot of overlap with willful ignorance. They are close cousins. Whereas willful ignorance is avoiding the consumption of information that conflicts with your beliefs, reality denial is refuting new information because it flies in the face of what you want or believe.
Even though we haven’t made our commitments the last three sprints (or iterations), we will continue to commit to more than we have completed because we believe we can or should do more.
Though everything the team is telling me indicates that we will not meet the deadlines, as a leader, I will continue to insist that we still have to meet the deadline without any change to scope because I believe this is the only way we can succeed.
As an organization, we design open space offices because we believe our employees will be more productive, despite the data that currently indicates a reduction in productivity in open environments.
Overconfidence is a lie we tell ourselves to elevate ourselves in our own perception. The maxim “fake it til you make it” is a prime example of this sort of self-deception. It can have significant benefits in that it helps us do things like public speaking or stretching our skills. It can also cause us to underestimate risks and difficulties in our efforts. My opening story was filled with overconfidence. The result was that I did not prepare the way I should have for that role and those around me easily saw that lack of preparation.
Self-enhancing deceptions are a close cousin to overconfidence. In this case, we enhance ourselves to prove to others how awesome we are. Blustering, exaggerating, and one-upping tend to live here. Also in this space is developing one’s brand or self-promotion to move ahead in our life or career.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have self-handicapping. Insecurity and imposter syndrome can play an essential role in perpetuating this deception. We use it to protect ourselves from the perception of inevitable failure due to our belief we lack the skills or knowledge to reach our goals. For example, not applying for a job or promotion that is perhaps a stretch assuming there’s no way you could get the role. The worst that could happen is you don’t get the role which means nothing changes. You might even walk away with a clearer understanding of what work you need to do. Alternatively, you could get the role. There’s only one way to know.
Confirmation Bias is the act of ingesting all the facts but only seeing those that support or confirm what we already believe. In addition to helping avoid cognitive dissonance, we employ this self-deception when there’s too much information to sift through. This can show up in offices when we only select articles that support our viewpoints to make our points with colleagues. We can also see this in the people we choose to spend time with by creating an echo chamber of agreeable opinions. The latter is particularly troublesome if the person creating the echo chamber is in leadership and is only hiring and promoting people that agree with their choices and vision.
Self-serving bias is when we credit our success to our hard work and our failures to external factors. In my opening example, I allowed a self-serving bias in my thinking to soothe my hurt feelings. The thoughts in my head went something like this:
- “I didn’t get the promotion because my boss didn’t provide me with enough information to prepare for the role aptly.”
- “My boss didn’t communicate what he perceived as promotion blocking flaws in our many conversations so that I could address them and improve.”
In retrospect, I’m pretty sure my boss tried to communicate these things, and I was so blinded by over-confidence and self-enhancement that I didn’t see the reality of the situation.
Like self-serving bias, attribution error is a way to excuse someone else’s bad behavior by focusing on dispositional factors. The belief that what people do is representative of who people are is what prompts this error. For example, if a colleague didn’t make a deadline you might say:
- “Well, he hasn’t learned the skills necessary yet.”
- “She’s just lazy.”
- “He’s a slacker.”
Often this self-deception is used to explain a person’s behavior when it creates discomfort for us. “Well, that’s just the way he or she is” can be much more easily brushed off without ever confronting the other person, which creates conflict.
The Impact of Self-Deception
As I’ve led individuals and teams through self-discovery, asking them to name their top values, usually they include one of these: truth, honesty, trust, or authenticity. Self-deception, at its core, is a lie. The very act of self-deception is against most people’s desire for truth. Generally, other people are better at seeing reality than the person in the throes of self-deception. This interplay undermines trust between individuals, on teams, and inside organizations. Trust is necessary for psychological safety. Psychological safety is necessary for high productivity and effectiveness.
Also, in individuals, the ability to grow is stunted. Either they do not see their flaws or they do not see their strengths. Both issues undermine someone’s ability to grow, change, and improve. In leaders, this can be exacerbated since organizations can only grow as far as their leaders have grown.
It’s not all bad though! Sometimes, self-deception is just what we need to be a little more humble or to spur us to act courageously. A leader in an organization might put on a little bravado about the vision they’re painting to inspire a company to greatness. An individual might enhance herself through her personal brand to find a new job.
It comes down to self-awareness, choice, and a little bit of humbleness to encourage the positive outcomes of self-deception and discourage the negative ones.
Choosing Right Action over Passive Self-Deception
Practice Self Awareness
Self-awareness is a mental muscle. Like other muscles, we can exercise and make it stronger over time. Here are some questions you can use to evaluate how much self-deception you are allowing:
- What behaviors am I exhibiting that undermine what I say or believe?
- What makes me nervous or scared about this situation?
- What can I do to validate the internal stories that are fueling my fears?
- What self-deception most resonates with my current situation?
- How is this deception helping me? How is this deception hurting me?
- What impact does this deception have on those around me?
You may not be able to catch yourself in the moment. Sometimes looking back at a situation can be enough. As you evaluate the self-deceptions we covered, was there one that brought forward a clear example for you? Leverage that experience and hold these questions up to it. Often, our self-deceptions are well-worn paths of habit. By looking at your patterns in one situation, you can find your patterns in the present and future.
Have a Support System
Self-awareness is a great tool, but it shouldn’t be your only tool in the toolbox. It’s important to get out of your box and leverage those around you. Get out of your echo chamber. Welcome opinions that are uncomfortable. Surround yourself with people who challenge you to question your beliefs, values, and intentions.
Once you do that, then you have to listen. Be ready to be challenged. To do that takes vulnerability and it is easy to fall back into self-deception in the midst of dropping our guard. It will feel unsafe. It is easy to become defensive and leverage self-deceptions to protect your perception of self or diminish negative emotions.
Go courageously into the midst of your closest friends and loved ones anyway.