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.