You Can’t Succeed from Inside the Box

Cabine TelephoniqueIt’s not uncommon to see amazingly brilliant people fail as leaders. There’s no doubt they have expertise related to their positions, company, and industry. Yet, that knowledge may not be enough to be successful in a leadership role. In my coaching practice I often hear statements like:

  • Why is this person causing me problems? If they would just…
  • I can’t believe my team can’t figure this out. They just aren’t performing.
  • My colleagues aren’t delivering what they promised. It’s making me look bad.

That’s when I use Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute (the authors of The Anatomy of Peace). Written like a story, this book is a quick read. The work really begins in applying one simple concept: seeing others as people rather than objects. When you see others as obstacles to go around or overcome, you put “them” in a box.  Of course what you don’t realize is that you just put yourself in a box at the same time.

How We Get Into the Box

Being out of the box has little to do with hard or soft skills. Many leadership books concentrate on how to communicate, build rapport with your team, colleagues and bosses or get more things done in less time. The Arbinger Institute has proven that skillful behavior can still fail to influence others, even when masterfully used. The culprit? Operating within the box: seeing others as having a problem to be fixed or solved. From this perspective your view of yourself and others becomes distorted (self deception). In the box you’re fully committed to your point of view. When you get resistance from others, you most likely get irritated, even defensive. See how the box walls block your ability to see others and their perspective?

We’re in the box when we:

  • Blame others
  • Justify our behaviors
  • Overemphasize our traits or abilities
  • Inflate other’s faults
  • Lack commitment
  • Withhold information
  • …and the list goes on
Getting out of the box occurs when you apply one simple concept: seeing others as people rather than objects.

When we’re in the box, we’re deceiving ourselves. And when our behaviors push others into their box… well, let’s just say those interactions aren’t positive. They may even escalate. Over time you may get so invested in your limited perspective, you’re actually co-contributing to keeping the barrier up. And the box walls get higher and higher.

Freedom Awaits

Being inside or outside of the box is a subtle differentiator. When you put yourself in a box, you create a boundary. It’s like an invisible line that creates the illusion of confidence which is nothing more than a safety barrier. The moment you acknowledge your role in the situation, you become vulnerable and therefore more authentic. And now you’re out of the box.

The book explains it this way:

The more we can find our way to the out-of-the box vantage points within us, the more readily we will be able to shine light on the in-the-box justifications we are carrying. All of a sudden, because of the presence of the people who continually stand before us, and because of what we know as we stand out of the box in relation to other people, our can be penetrated by the humanity of those whom we’ve been resisting. When that happens, we know in that moment what we need to do: We need to honor them as people. And in that moment — the moment I see another as a person, with needs, hopes, and worries as real and legitimate as my own — I am out of the box toward him.

Getting out — and staying out — of the box is hard to do on your own. That’s where trusted advisors and good friends can help.  It’s also where an executive coach can help throw a rope over the box’s edge and help you climb out.


Photo credit: Cabine Telephonique Rouge