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Strategic Leader Self-Deception Enablers

Certain organizational attributes, intentional or not, can enable a leader to self-deceive. An organization that enables its strategic leaders to self-deceive by making it easy and limiting their chances of getting caught will not develop self-aware leaders. Self-deception prevents self-awareness because it inhibits authenticity.[1] If the end goal of leadership development for any organization is to produce self-aware leaders, obstacles to this must be discovered and knocked down.

Organizational Tolerance for Lying

Organizational tolerance for lying, deception, and self-deception can take the form of formal or informal enablers. Deception can be more than just tolerated. It can be sanctioned by even higher leadership, condoned and encouraged, or even ordered by a higher authority.[2] Formal encouragement may give someone what they feel is protection from blowback if they are caught practicing deception. But even informal reassurance can make unethical behavior seem legitimate and even desirable.[3]

One lie may beget another lie and may make it easier to commit more transgressions in the future. When an initial lie goes undetected or unpunished, consequent lies become easier to perpetrate. Over time, the severity and pervasiveness can become systemic in the organization until immoral behavior becomes an organization-wide phenomenon. It then becomes easier for a leader to overcome their inhibitions against lying and deceiving, as long as they are not discovered. The threat of discovery and having past untruths exposed is a powerful incentive for a leader to continue lying.[4]

Like-Minded Deceivers

Informal acquiescence to unethical behavior on a firm-wide level can take the place of more formal enablers and give the highest group of leaders some plausible deniability. Groups within an organization can be formed that actually feed a cycle of immoral conduct. Within these groups, individuals are misoriented in the same direction. They find comfort in their actions when their teammates reinforce their beliefs and actions, and no one takes contrary views to disrupt this form of groupthink.[5] This tacit support network makes it easier for in-group members to deceive out-group members and even deceive themselves individually when colleagues are complicit in such actions. Collective deception and self-deception may informally be mediated and enabled by cultural elements within the group or organization as a whole.[6]

Within the group, groupthink prevails when thought is not challenged, and individuals are not encouraged to speak their minds. Within the team, members may withhold information from one another, avoid challenging information, or distort information to avoid challenging existing group-held beliefs. This tight grouping of like-minded individuals, which could exist all the way up to the executive suite, will rarely allow for confrontational or belief-defying information.[7]

In an interview with Anthony Pratkanis, he discussed self-deception in a group setting, giving Enron in 2001 and Theranos in 2018 as examples. Pratkanis said that the executive teams set up boundaries to prevent anyone from bringing legitimate information forward that contradicted prevailing thought. They fired dissenters or marginalized them. In the Theranos case, he said executives spread malign rumors about dissenters, fired them, and threatened them if they sought to blow the whistle. Another, less severe method he talked about was ‘cooling them out.’ Executives pretended to show interest in the concerns of dissenters, all the while trying to dissuade them from bringing their issues forward or deflecting their questions.[8]

Success Breeds Complacency

If something isn’t broken, one may not see the need to fix it. If a group has seen some success, they may be ill-inclined to tinker with the processes and people that got them to where they are. The problem with this way of doing business is that there could be underlying factors, processes, and personalities that will induce future failure or group dysfunction if not reckoned with before it’s too late.

Leaders insulate themselves from the harsh realities of underlying problems waiting to surface when they ignore signs they exist or pass the blame off to others. A string of victories may convince a leader that their method of leadership contributes to the cause of success. They may see no need to consider painful reconsideration of the true causes of victory. Particularly in results-oriented organizations that rely on metrics as indicators of success or failure, leaders may ignore interpersonal problems as something they can dismiss.[9] To draw proper conclusions, leaders need to get a true reading of the macro-situation and the real contributing factors to their success.[10] If they don’t want to look for the root causes, they can always blame others for a failure, arguing that their past successes preclude them from being the culprit. If left unchecked, this behavior increases the commonness of future self-unawareness.[11]

Personal Enablers

An organization can do all the right things needed to develop self-aware leaders. It can provide the proper organizational enablers to encourage self-awareness and discourage self-deception, but sometimes this is an uphill battle. Some individual leaders have ingrained in their psyche a process that is susceptible to errors in perceptual causation. They feed this process by constraining their abilities through overrepresentation of the self as opposed to fighting for the needs of the collective.[12] Self-interested motives, the assignment of blame to others, and blurred ethical responsibilities to themselves and their colleagues are characteristics of individual perceptions gone awry.[13]

Low Fit Induces Self-Alienation

Organizations and individuals benefit from high person-organization fit. A person that can fill the job requirements and mesh with the organization’s culture is the desired end state of the recruitment and human resource development apparatus. When congruence is realized between an employee’s beliefs, values, and ethics and that of the organization and their mission, the organization benefits from positive work outcomes.[14]

Person-organization fit is as important at the tactical level of the organization, from employees in the field dealing with customers to business analysts, as it is at the senior leader level. The big issue in how this concept interacts with leader self-awareness and self-deception is the potential for self-alienation. Low fit leads to self-alienation and reduced self-expression.[15] A self-alienated leader cannot achieve self-awareness as they become disconnected from themselves, exhibit low self-knowledge, and have little motivation to honestly explore their strengths and shortcomings.[16] A leader with a low fit to their organization may suppress their personal values if they are not in sync with the standards and culture of the organization. The result may be higher levels of self-deception.[17]

Strategic leader who deceives themselves are responsible for this destructive practice. Organizations must do their best to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of a leader working towards self-awareness. Leaders and their organizations must work together to discourage self-deceptive practices and support strategic leader self-awareness development.


  • it is easier for a leader to commit future lies when their deceptions go undetected

  • like-minded groups misoriented in the same direction can feed a cycle of unethical behavior

  • some leaders have engrained in their psyche a process that is susceptible to errors in perceptual causation

[1] Bachirovka (2015) [2] Brief et al. (2001) [3] Kelman and Hamilton (19890 [4] Fleming and Zyglidopoulos (2007) [5] Trivers (2006) [6] Gorelik and Shakelford (2011) [7] Kuntz and Dehlin (2019) [8] Pratkanis, A., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [9] Scullard, M., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [10] Place (1970) [11] Fleming and Zyglidopoulos (2007) [12] Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) [13] Messick and Bazerman (1996) [14] Astakhova (2016) [15] Kuntz and Abbott (2017) [16] Knoll et al. (2015) [17] Kuntz and Abbott (2017)

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