Rationalization: Dangerous Thinking

There are things that bother me in business. “Rationalization” is one of them. Let me give you some examples, and let’s see if you agree with me.

1. Creating justifications after decisions are made.

I’ve dedicated my life to building up businesses. Business growth is what I most like to do. But there are times when cutting expenses takes priority over growth. When that happens, unfortunately, people will lose their jobs.

I don’t like those moments. I don’t like it when it is done to me (cancellation of a consulting contract) and I don’t like it when it is done to others.

What bothers me the most, however, is when those responsible for executing the reductions, create a justification for their action after the fact. Many times it has nothing to do with the real reason the cut is being made.

Frankly, it happens so much that I consider it a mental lapse that comes over people. It’s like deciding to go to war, and then creating a reason to justify the decision. It qualifies as a high form of manipulation, which when done enough creates an atmosphere of dishonesty.

2. Defending your position when it is not necessary.

I travel between Utah and California a lot. Both places have things going for them, but rarely is that recognized by those in one state or the other. For example, when you say to someone from Utah that you are going to be staying in southern California to take advantage of the milder weather, it’s not unusual for someone to say, “Well, I like Utah because I can experience the four seasons.”

No doubt there are four seasons in Utah, but what does that have to do with going to southern California to take advantage of the milder weather? One has nothing to do with the other.

With reference to business I call this “defending your turf.” Many of us equate a positive comment about someone or something else as a criticism about ourselves. As a result, we end up defending ourselves unnecessarily.

In the end, this hinders the ongoing progress of a business, because more time is spent undoing personal insecurities than accomplishing the goals for which the business was created.

3. Explaining away failure by attributing it to an outside cause.

Taking full responsibility for both the successes and failures of a business is a hard thing to do, so much so, that hardly anyone does it.

A few years ago, I asked the “Manager of Sales” of a business I owned how things were going. His answer was, “As well as can be expected. The poor economy has slowed things down.” After the economy improved, the same person approached me and asked for a raise. “Why?” I asked. “I’ve improved sales,” he responded.

My question to him was direct, “if the poor economy caused your sales to go down,the improved economy must have caused them to go up as well. Why then do you deserve a raise?”

The only answer he could come up with was, “That was a totally different situation.” I didn’t pursue the issue further, nor did I give the person a raise.

If one attributes outside forces for sub-par performance, one surely should do the same thing for above-par performance, especially when outside forces improve. In my judgment anything less is a lapse in clear thinking.

It doesn’t bother me that a person asked for a raise. What bothers me is that they attribute sub-par performance to conditions outside of their control, but attribute above- par performance to their efforts.

A better scenario would have been to show improved sales during a weak economy. Now that’s cause for a raise.


As a management consultant and business owner, I understand the importance of employing competent executives in positions of trust. Of all the traits that are necessary, there is one that is not. That is the habit of rationalizing.

When an executive: justifies a decision after a decision is made, or defends his positions out of a sense of insecurity, or attributes blame for poor performance to outside causes, you are looking at an executive who rationalizes. This kind of thinking will ultimately do more harm than good to a business.

Most of us are guilty of rationalizing to one degree or another. If we want to minimize rationalizing, here are three recommendations which might help.

Three Recommendations

One, if your reasons for making a decision are not clear, step back and think through things a little more. Remember, the analysis you go through before you come to your decision is more important than any justification you create after you make a decision.

Two, be ever vigilant about not taking things personally. Above all else, don’t become defensive. Remember, most things are not about you, and even if they are, a non-reaction is the best reaction.

Three, before you accept a position, make sure you know what you will be required to achieve, and be prepared to accept full responsibility for the results, good or bad.


Rationalization is a defense mechanism that humans employ to protect themselves psychologically. In a business environment where one is almost always trying to preserve his job, rationalization is a common defense mechanism. Usually, those who overcome the tendency to rationalize, are appreciated for their clear thinking.They are often rewarded with greater and greater responsibility.