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Recommendations for Discouraging Self-Deception in Strategic Leaders

This post presents my three strategic-level recommendations to an organization to help prevent self-deceptive practices in a strategic leader. Leaders and the organizations they serve must stop self-deception before this behavior becomes commonplace. To do this, they need to recognize the indicators that a leader is being self-deceptive. Organizations can help leaders achieve greater self-awareness and prevent self-deception by giving them access to accurate feedback.


Stop Self-Deception Before It Becomes Commonplace

Self-deception is a tactic one employs to protect themselves from information they do not want to acknowledge. They may use this tactic to temporarily relieve themselves of the stress associated with strategic leadership. But this false sense of control is only fleeting, and if allowed to continue, it may lead to greater and more frequent self- and others-deception.

Generally, people are not good at detecting deception, either in themselves or from someone else. They often fail to see the biases in their decision-making and the hidden motives of others. When leaders fail to see how they lie to themselves to serve selfish ends, they are less likely to accept constructive feedback that will help them be better leaders. If leaders are allowed to flourish as self-deceptive persons, the leaders themselves will be more likely to fall prey to someone else’s efforts to deceive them.

Accepting deception as commonplace is a disaster waiting to happen for a leader and the organization. One lie may lead to more lies. The self-deceptive leader may become more comfortable with the practice. It is then easier for the leader to commit future lies when their deceptions go undetected and unpunished. But as the lies increase in severity and frequency, the deceptions become more complicated. Deceiving oneself is more manageable than deceiving others. As the number of targets grows (with self-deception there is only one target, the self), so does the chances of getting caught. This complexity only adds to the myriad of stressors leaders already face daily.

Understand the Indicators and Processes of Self-Deception

There are indicators that someone is lying to others or themselves. A deceiver acts differently when they attempt to deceive than when they go about normal, honest activities. Signs of deception can leak out in their verbal, nonverbal, and written communication. However, the perpetrator may be unwitting of the indicators that show they are lying.

Irrational thought could be an indication that a leader has succumbed to self-deception for personal gain. There are many other indicators, seen and unseen by the self-deceiver and by others. Such leaders may present inconsistencies between their words and deeds, may have very charismatic but egotistical personalities and may shun feedback from others. Self-deceptive leaders try to manipulate others to suit their needs and wants. They may present an ideal image of themselves as a leader, use excessive positivity to hide nefarious intentions, and champion unrealistic goals to inspire followers.

Some leaders have engrained in their psyche a process that is susceptible to errors in perceptual causation. Self-deceptive leaders exhibit narcissistic behavior. They may view problems too simply, ignoring the ethical elements. Leaders wishing to protect their ego from damaging truths use cognitive biases to choose information that supports their already-held beliefs. They ignore, discard, distort, misremember, or misrepresent information that does not match their perception of reality. When they need data stored from their memory to make a decision, they may inaccurately recall it to better fit with their perception of reality. Self-deceptive leaders anchor to previous bad decisions to support new choices, they rationalize negative feedback to match previous notions, and they blame others for their mistakes. They do many of these things to protect their ego.

People are more motivated to discover deception from others and less motivated to examine their egos for signs of self-deception. Organizations must help their leaders avoid self-deceptive behavior. The danger in not doing this is that routine self-deception using any of the above tactics may lead to psychological numbness to the dishonest practice.

Help Leaders Prevent Self-Deception by Providing Them with Accurate and Honest Feedback

Misdiagnosis of one’s leadership attributes is problematic, and it contributes to self-deception. Leaders who receive inadequate or tainted feedback may develop overconfidence in their abilities to lead. Overconfidence leads to poor decision-making. A leader’s development is dependent on accurate data regarding the outcomes of their decisions. It is also reliant on their acknowledging this accurate data even if it does not fit with their already-held beliefs.

The best way to arm someone with the knowledge they need to improve as a leader is to give them as much accurate feedback from as many different sources as available. Their development is dependent on discovering and acknowledging the discrepancies between their assessment of themselves and others’ assessments of them as a leader. This can only be accomplished when leaders readily accept feedback from many sources, even from those they lead.

Leaders who embrace multi-rater, 360-degree feedback mechanisms will be equipped to assess and monitor their performance more accurately. Such programs give leaders a more precise picture of their leadership attributes. Feedback from peers, superiors, customers, and especially direct reports who have unique perceptions of the leader’s performance is the most effective tool at showing a leader their blind spots.

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