Who’s “in the box”?

My wife and I have been traveling more than usual over the last couple of weeks. Like clock work, when we are in the airport (usually in line to board the plane), I look at my wife and say, “Uh oh. I am so in the box right now.”

What I am referring to is an anecdote from the book, Leadership and Self-Deception published by the Arbinger Institute. The book discusses how many of us remain “in the box” in our work lives, where we tend to see people more as objects or obstacles rather than as people who have the same hopes, desires, needs, and wants that we do.

By way of example, picture boarding a Southwest Airlines flight. They are known for their unique boarding process where passengers are not assigned seats, but are instead assigned boarding numbers that create a queue for entering the plane and choosing any open seat. When traveling with a companion, most people with early boarding numbers sit one on the aisle and one on the window, hoping the plane is not full, and no one will choose to occupy the middle seat.

Angie’s post as part of “Project Outward” about our conversation about Leadership and Self Deception

However, the people with later boarding numbers are still people. They want to enjoy a flight that they purchased and reach their destination safely and comfortably just like anyone else would. But when we are sitting in our self-selected seat, avoiding eye-contact in hopes that the next passenger walks past us, those other passengers lose their humanity in our eyes and become an obstacle to our wants. When we do that, we are “in the box”

The book goes deeper to unpack this idea in a user friendly, narrative form. It explains how we get into the box and what we can do to get out of it.

Reading this book has made me think deeper about being “in the box.” I am more aware of times when I view people critically rather than trying to see the whole picture. It is a vital concept in patient or customer experience, because sometimes we create systems that put bedside caregivers,”in the box.” In those cases, not only are other people in the organization seen as obstacles, but our patients can be seen as obstacles too. In that environment it is almost impossible for one to display the empathy needed towards a patient in the hospital.

One of the biggest benefits of the book is the use of common language, including the “in the box” phrase. One of this blog’s loyal readers, Angie Bryl, Clinical Director for Dankmeyer Prosthetics and Orthotics, has used Leadership and Self Deception to advance the culture of her organization. Team members at Dankmeyer frequently use the term “in the box” to point out barriers in collaboration between team members. She has found the framework helpful not only at work, but personally too.

I have enjoyed Angie’s Facebook posts called, “Project Outward”, which she writes about people in her life who inspire her or make her think more deeply about a topic. She told me that being focused on being “outside of the box” has helped her be more true to herself, be more generous, and be less inhibited when her initial instinct is to do something nice for another person.

It is for all of those reasons that I recommend we follow Angie’s example and really internalize all of the lessons in Leadership and Self Deception. Angie gifted me a copy of the book and shared her experiences with me. I think it is making me a better person, both at work and in my personal life, and I so appreciate the thoughtful recommendation and gift. I only wish I had read it sooner!

KEY TAKEAWAY: Being “in the box” means seeing people as obstacles rather than as human beings with needs and wants just like us. As leaders, we must take steps to encourage team members to live “out of the box”, especially when interfacing with our patients or customers.


Leadership and Self Deception is available for purchase on Amazon for $16.95 (does not include Prime discount).