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).

Getting on the same side of the table

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People belong in the category of must read classics like How to Win Friends and Influence People. Covey outlines lessons that are important for everyone to internalize and it is a great starting point for leaders. The first time I read it, I listened to the audiobook, which Covey narrates himself. It’s a wonderful way to take in the lessons in the book because you can hear his emphasis at different points.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People are:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first
  4. Think win/win
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the saw

But that list only barely touches the surface of the wisdom and life lessons outlined in the chapters devoted to each individual habit. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on one that I found to be especially vital.

7HabitsIn the world of patient experience, we talk a lot about communication. Communication with the patient, with appropriate family members, and between clinicians caring for that patient is an area of opportunity for the industry. Covey talks about a deep communication practice in his chapter on habit 5, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

In habit 5, Covey touches on several key concepts including, “Empathic listening,” “Diagnose before you prescribe,” and “Understanding and perception”. These skills require self-awareness and the ability to pause and reflect on our behavior.

In the section on “Diagnose before you prescribe,” Covey provides the example of an eye exam. He writes that the doctor does not just take off his glasses and say, “Use these, they’ve worked for me for years!” He takes the time to help the patient explain what they see and he fits the corrective lenses for them.

Too often, we do the opposite. I catch myself in this pattern of behavior too often. Just because something worked in a situation we faced, does not mean that the same strategy and tactics will work for another person with different skills and different life experiences. Taking the time to diagnose what is going on will help us be better leaders and better people.

My favorite part of habit 5 though is the section called, “Four Autobiographical Responses.” In this part of the book, Covey summarizes a hypothetical conversation between a parent and child who wants to drop out of school. Covey presents the same scenario in three different ways. In the first, the parent tries to guide the child by lecturing based on the parent’s own experience. In the second scenario, the reader sees the child’s impression of the conversation and how the child feels ignored and misunderstood.

In the final scenario, the parent asks the child the right questions, listens to understand and does not pass judgement or lecture. By being more open, slowing down, and learning what the child is going through, the parent learns that the child wants to drop out of school because of a recently diagnosed learning disability. By listening and interacting with the child in an empathetic way, the parent learns what is really behind the child’s desire to leave school.

What happens next in the story is remarkable. The parent and child begin to problem solve together. Covey calls this, “getting on the same side of the table.” This concept spoke to me. Lately, I have been trying to find as many ways as I can to “get on the same side of the table” with the people I serve.

Getting to the same side of the table means problem solving, having healthy discussion, and collaborating in a way that builds the relationship, not taxes it. The more we can be on the “same side of the table,” rather than debate or disagree to win an argument, the better the world can become.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a foundational book in practicing leadership. Habit 5 discusses how we can “get on the same side of the table” with other people by engaging in”Empathic listening”, “Diagnose before you prescribe”, and “Understanding and perception”.


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is available for purchase on Amazon for $30.00 (does not include Prime discount)

Does God exist in cyberspace?

Please enjoy this special Christmas Day blog post. Wishing you, your family, and friends a meaningful holiday full of good health and happiness.

I recently finished the book Thank You for Being Late by Thomas L. Friedman. He covers many important topics in this book including Moore’s law, global warming, and the importance of community building.

I will review the book itself in a future post, however one specific anecdote struck me in particular. Friedman describes the best audience question he has ever gotten about one of his books. During an event in Portland, Oregon in 1999, he was asked, “Is God in Cyberspace?”. Friedman writes, “I confess, I didn’t know how to answer his question, which was asked with the utmost sincerity and demanded an answer” (Friedman, 368).

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After reaching out to a mentor and scholar, Rabbi Tzvi Marx, he got his answer. Friedman explains, “In other words, he [Marx] explained, unless we bear witness to God’s presence by our own good deeds, He is not present…We are responsible for making God’s presence manifest by what we do, by the choices we make…Only we can bring Him there [cyberspace] by how we act there” (Friedman, 369).

I would argue that how we bring God anywhere, cyberspace or otherwise, is by how we conduct ourselves, especially as it relates to other people.

It reminds me of a story from the Talmud about a man who comes to see Hillel, a famous Jewish sage, to convert to Judaism. The man asks if Hillel can help him learn the entire Torah while the convert stood on one foot. Hillel said to the man, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”

A core value of mine is treating people well by honoring them regardless of their experience, history or social “status”. I didn’t realize it until very recently, but that is why I studied etiquette growing up, by reading books such as How to Be a Gentleman by John Bridges and Debrett’s Guide for the Modern Gentleman. For a long time, I couldn’t explain why I read these books and why they meant so much to me. The answer, I know now, is that how we treat each other is the main way we practice basic humanity, honor ourselves, honor each other, and honor God.

It is one of the reasons I feel called to work on patient experience in the health care setting. If medical professionals can honor patients during a most difficult time in their lives, perhaps patients will pay that care forward in other places as well. Perhaps medical professionals will bring the learning to other places of employment. In other words, I think the work, if done right, could have a positive multiplier-effect.

Learning behaviors that bring honor and respect to people, such as practicing empathy, following up with a nice note, giving encouragement, and acknowledging a whole person including their feelings, hopes, desires, and wants is what underlies etiquette.

For example, in our society it is often polite to send a thank you note after being given a gift. We do this to acknowledge that the gift-giver did something nice for us and we appreciate it, showing we don’t take it for granted. It’s a beautiful process where both the gift-giver and gift-receiver feel meaning.

I find it so unfortunate that in society today, we tend to view etiquette as a stodgy, old, and obsolete way of behaving. More and more, thanks to social media and other forces, we see ourselves as the center of the universe, with others often times just in our way of being able to live the life we want (if you disagree with me, sit in DC traffic for even 20 minutes and observe your behavior and the behavior of other drivers. It is as if everyone else is just in each other’s way of getting where they want to go. Safety, fairness, and even laws feel secondary).

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Practicing etiquette to everyone is at the root of what it means to practice basic humanity and observe the golden rule. If we don’t practice, we forget. I have found it disconcerting to observe people behaving disrespectfully and rudely. It is even worse when we, as a society, glorify those behaviors in Hollywood movies or popular culture (Think “House” or the Ari character in Entourage).

During this holiday season, I have been reflecting a great deal on character and trying to lead a better life of service. Like most people, I struggle, I fall down, and I fail. But, it is my goal in 2019 to struggle a little more, while falling down and failing a little less.

One of the three main topics of this blog is “How we treat each other”. As leaders, our behavior matters so much in this area. We must focus on it and treat it more like a priority. Our behavior impacts others even more so because of our position in leadership. Giving others a positive example and creating practices that remind us all of the right ways to treat others in an imperative.

During the holiday today and as we move into 2019, please join me in reflecting on how we treat each other and what we can do to put a more positive example into the world. Please reach out to me if you have ideas or want to practice together! Please contact me here.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leaders need to set an example and hold themselves to the highest standards around how to acknowledge and treat other people. We share this earth with 7.53 billion other people. How we get along is a main part of our humanity and how we bring a higher presence into our lives and the lives of others.