The Principles of Leadership and Self-Deception

by Andrew Gordon

There are many great resources that teach dealership owners and employees on how to run a dealership. There are even more amazing options on business fundamentals. The one that most influenced my experience as a manager both at a dealership and of DealerScience as a growing start-up is Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box by the Arbinger Institute. The impact was immediate and profound. It masterfully teaches crucial leadership concepts in a simple manner without feeling threatening. And the book doesn’t stop at the office; I’ve seen the same positive outcomes in my personal life. 

The premise is simple: most situations people find themselves in are a result of choices. Instead of initially choosing an option that a person doesn’t feel needs defending, people habitually justify situations and blame others when they feel defensive about their decision. Let’s unpack that a bit. 

The book is told in the form of a story, where a new employee starts their job at a new company. Each of the characters faces difficult situations that -- surprise! -- business leaders might also find themselves facing. Some have difficult bosses. Others are in impossible situations. Each seems justified in feeling helpless and each feels the situations that make them feel this way were out of their control. 

As we follow the new employee, it’s easy to recognize as a third party how their actions might have contributed to the situations that seemed out of their control. As an example situation and not one that we are emotionally connected to, we can be empathetic, seeing how someone else might feel. This allows us to see the characters for who they are instead of the problem. And when we do that, we see that there are solutions to many situations and that they are often much more straightforward than expected. 

One of the most poignant examples in the book is when a new father wakes to his crying baby. He is faced with a choice: pretend he doesn’t hear his child and hope his partner takes care of it, or wake up fully and comfort the baby. If he ignores the baby and his wife ignores the baby, he starts to think she’s inconsiderate and lazy for not getting up. If he pretends not to hear and waits for his wife to get up, he justifies how he has an early morning the next day, or he did the last shift with the baby.

See how easy it is to justify your choice or blame others for making a different decision? But here’s the takeaway: feeling the need to justify a decision signals defensiveness about the choice. At the end of the day, the new father could have chosen to comfort the baby instead of justifying why he didn’t. The baby would be comforted, his partner would get some much needed sleep, and he would feel satisfied with his decision. 

So many of our challenges in life -- both professional and personal -- can be improved by framing people with empathy and guiding them to a decision that feels right to them and therefore needs no justification. While the DealerScience management team was reading the book, we were simultaneously working with an employee who wasn’t hitting their sales quota. Leaning into the concepts presented in Leadership and Self Deception, we framed the employee as a person instead of as a problem. We asked them how it was going and if there was anything that we could do to better help and support them in meeting their goals. This approach was wildly successful. Instead of feeling immediately defensive and needing to explain all the external reasons why they were underperforming, the employee acknowledged they were frustrated with their own performance, knew where they lacked understanding, and asked if they could have some additional training to practice their soft skills. Within six weeks, we felt like we had a totally different employee, one who was excited to come to work, felt confident in their day-to-day, and was comfortable reaching out to management with concerns and shortcomings.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Much better than immediately dealing with performance plans and defensive meetings. This book is the perfect thought-starter for the dealership world, especially as dealerships adapt to changing market conditions and adjusting workforces. The principles of Leadership and Self Deception emphasize ways to help departments work together, grow teams that make good choices inside your store and build a productive team. 



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