To say to someone, “you’re a hypocrite” is about the nastiest thing I can say. Think about how eager the media writers investigate to expose hypocrisy. And how news of others’ hypocrisy becomes the office coffee room conversation.

“At more traditional news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, journalists have been schooled that an individual’s private behavior only becomes news as it reflects on their public life … The justification for the media to dive in is usually not hard to discern — when the public has been lied to, when government employees have been drawn into the mess, when a cover-up has been constructed, or when hypocrisy has been exposed.” — James Rainey, Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The taboo of hypocrisy is so dark and foreboding that I refuse to look at my own hypocrisy.

I react defensively listing good reasons for what others see as my hypocrisy or dismissing the statement with “you just don’t understand” or, more often, offering my silence hoping the subject would change.

After resigning my last job, a colleague said, “You say you’re about collaboration, but I didn’t experience that working with you.”

Ouch. It took 18 months before the sting of that remark diminished and I could begin the inner search to understand my colleague’s experience. If only I could have asked some questions in the original moment — “Could you please share some examples?” “What does collaboration mean to you?” “How do you want to work together?” Some additional information might have sped up the internal work and reduced the number of my sleepless nights.

I dream of the day when I can ask for feedback from my colleagues as we are working together, instead of receiving the feedback just as I was exiting the company. That I can help create a safe enough space for these conversations to emerge as they are needed. That I can ask for feedback even when it’s not the norm of the group.

Taking a stunning stand

Months after the collaboration feedback, I’m watching a video of a Robert Quinn workshop on leadership and I hear him say,

“About ten years ago I came to an important conclusion — that it’s natural to do certain things. I am a hypocrite. I have some values that I don’t live up to. There’s a gap between my values and what I do.

“Standing in front of a group of my colleagues and saying ‘I am a hypocrite’ was transformative. It gave me permission to look at my own hypocrisy.

“What that means is I’m walking around with a garbage can. It’s tightly sealed because if I take the cap off, it stinks. What that means is I have a huge asset. Whenever I unscrew the top and open it and smell it, the stench is so powerful that it’s an immediate motivator to close one of my integrity gaps. The moment I do that, something dramatic happens.”

I was stunned, eyes wide in amazement witnessing Quinn’s authenticity. Chills ran up my spine. I thought, “How could Quinn muster up the guts?” followed by “I wish I had leaders in my life speaking out like that.”

Hypocrisy is the natural state of the human mind.

Harvard organizational behavior professor Chris Argyris proposes that we all have an espoused theory (how we claim to behave) and a theory in action (how we actually behave). He argues that there is a re-occurring discrepancy between what we espouse and how we behave — that we are all natural hypocrites — and that we are mostly unaware of this discrepancy.

Now Robert Kurzban’s research shows us that the key to understanding our inconsistent behavior lies in understanding the mind’s design.

“The human mind consists of many specialized units designed by the process of evolution by natural selection. While these modules sometimes work together seamlessly, they don’t always, resulting in impossibly contradictory beliefs, vacillations between patience and impulsiveness, violations of our supposed moral principles and overinflated views of ourselves.

“This modular, evolutionary psychological view of the mind undermines deeply held intuitions about ourselves, as well as a range of scientific theories that require a ‘self’ with consistent beliefs and preferences. Modularity suggests that there is no ‘I.’ Instead, each of us is a contentious ‘we’ — a collection of discrete but interacting systems whose constant conflicts shape our interactions with one another and our experience of the world.” — Robert Kurzban, Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind

Kurzban uses the analogy of the iPhone as your brain, containing many apps. Some apps are interconnected (Address Book and Maps), while others are not, thus operating independently and inconsistently.

Moving towards authenticity

Yes, I value collaboration and I am not collaborative. I value authenticity and I do not reveal my true self and want “leaders” (anyone except me) to set the example. I am a hypocrite; I am human.

Coming to this milestone — revealing my dark side in public writing — has been a decade-plus-long journey. The “a-ha”s experienced along the way revealed further hypocrisy to understand. Today I believe this journey, like many others, is life-long. I surrender and offer this invitation:

If hypocrisy is a natural state, could we all “chill out” about the horrors of being hypocritical? If we reduce the stigma, would we be able to more easily look at our own? — oops, I think this is in need of an “I” statement —

If I reduce the stigma, would I be able to more easily look at my hypocrisy? To ask others for feedback? To be more compassionate of others’ “hypocritical” actions?

And yet it was being called on my own hypocrisy and my seeing that as a horror, that gave me the wake-up call to investigate my behavior.

It’s time to speak out, or at least write.

It’s time to be that change I want to see in the world. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing my journey, some tools I’ve found along the way, and some lessons learned. My intention is self-centered. Writing helps clear the voices that keep repeating in my head. And I usually see a situation differently after moving the thoughts from my head to paper.

And by sharing my writing, I’m hoping to broaden the conversation, to learn from others, to make this journey less lonely. And to make my world a better place. Please join by adding your comments below, especially how you see this differently.


Argyris, Chris and Donald A. Schön (1974). Theory in practice. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Argyris, Chris (1993). Knowledge for Action: A guide to overcoming barriers to organizational change. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Kurzban, Robert (2010). Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite: Evolution and the modular mind. Princeton University Press.

Quinn, Robert E. (2000). Change the World: How ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary results. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.