“To see the self as deceiving itself has seemed the only way to explain what might otherwise be incomprehensible: a person’s failure to acknowledge what is too obvious to miss” (Bok, 1989)

Most of us would like to believe that if we had been at Enron or at any of the growing number of failing companies, we would have done the right thing and spoken up, right?  After all, we’re good, moral people who behave ethically, don’t we?

Consider the following three scenarios:

1. If you’re a woman, imagine being asked sexually harassing questions by a male interviewer during a job interview.  
How would you respond?


  1. Imagine that you’ve been made aware that in five weeks’ time, a cancer charity will be selling daffodils to fund ongoing research.         How many would you buy?


3. Imagine you’ve witnessed a senior manager consciously and regularly double claiming on expenses.        

Would you speak up?


What accounts for this in congruence between our willingness and the reality of our actions?

Evidence shows there are a number of reasons, and in this blog I will focus on Self Deception, the ethical bleach that removes the willingness to speaking up.

People tend to mis-predict how they will behave in the future, often overestimating the extent to which they would engage in socially desirable behaviours.   At the same time, people mis-remember past behaviours as being more positive than they actually were. Our self predictions generally reflect our hopes and desires rather than realistic self understanding.

Instead of Know Thyself, it would be more helpful to Know ThySelves.

Let’s have a look at the sequence of influences that drive the change in our behaviours by utilising the 1,2,3  scenarios above.

A. “I should tell this interviewer that his behaviour is inappropriate.”
B  “I should speak up about Paul double claiming on expenses.
C  “I should donate more money to cancer charities

During the prediction phase and prior to taking any action the Should Self dominates and is often distorted in a self-enhancing way, characterised as rational, cognitive, thoughtful and cool headed. Should choices are made purposely with an eye on the long term horizon, shifting attention to intrinsic, core values.

Ethical intentions are encompassed in the belief that we should behave according to ethical principles and in line with our idealised self.


A  “I want this job”
B  “I want to keep my job”  “I want Paul to like me.”   “I don’t want to look like a snitch”  “I want to be seen as a team player.”
C  “I want to spend some money on myself.”

During the Action phase, the Want Self dominates reflected in behaviour that is emotional, affective, impulsive and hot headed. The Want Self diverges from the Should Self, getting into the driving seat and taking control of decision making and action.

The want self emerges at or near the time of taking action and recedes thereafter. It is characterised by self interest and relative disregard for ethical considerations, distracting people away from their intrinsic values. Visceral responses dominate, such as fear which in turn drive instinctive self preservation behaviours with short sighted trade offs.


A  “No one got hurt”
B  “Everyone else does what Paul does”  “There should be better checks in place”  “It’s not my business”
C  “The cancer charity gets tons of support” “The online system for donating money to cancer charities is terrible”

Because we have the capacity to recognise that we’ve behaved in line with our want self and compute the outcomes as a result of this behaviour, the recollection process is one of restoring the should self by adjusting the importance of various abstract aspects of the situation. We selectively remember pieces of the story or persuade ourselves that our behaviour was acceptable because it was within the rules of the game.

The more self-deception there is, the less obvious are the ethical dimensions of a situation. It follows that the less obvious the ethical dimensions, the less likely it is that an ethical decision frame will be adopted and the more likely it is that individuals will behave unethically.

Interrupting the cycle to Align our ‘Want’ and ‘Should’ Selves
The first step is to recognise that self deception is pervasive and has universal presence; to deny the evidence is self deception itself.

Current training, whilst promoting an ethical ‘fix-it’ frame is partially effective, it’s too late in the game and fails to recognise the other variables in the sequence of events of acting on a decision made, particularly the innate psychological tendency for individuals to engage in self deception.

Our Courageous Conversations training is directed at the sequence of events leading up to an action or inaction, so that during the prediction phase, when the should self is dominant, individuals are taught to capture and act on their intrinsic, core values which in turn lead to actions of courage and integrity.

Is your organisation currently measuring employees ‘Should’ Speak Up selvesinstead of their aligned ‘Should-Wantselves?

This measure leaves employers unsafe, uncertain and exposed to unethical practices with the self efficacy of employees eroded.

The solution is to measure employees’ aligned ‘Should-Want’ selves, their likelihood to speak up, to prevent organisational and individual self deception. Our Voiceability survey, co created with Psycholate and Dr Isabel C Botero aligns the ‘Should’ and ‘Want’ selves to determine the likelihood of employees speaking up as opposed to only their willingness.

Get in touch, I’d be very happy to be of service.