Does a magician believe his own magic? Is there a point in time where he practices a trick so many times that in the end he himself believes it to be true? I have never thought of myself as magician but I will have to admit there is something magical about being able rationalize anything; the ability to see any situation as I would have it be. I recently had this conversation with the Chief Financial Officer of my organization. We were discussing capital items and trying to basically squeeze blood out of a turnip, as the old saying goes. I began to rationalize why items would fit nicely under the approved capital buckets when in fact it was a far stretch to get there. As we talked I said with confidence, as if it was a beneficial trait, “I can rationalize anything”. Boy, how true that statement was. According to Wikipedia rationalization encourages irrational or unacceptable behavior, motives, or feelings. The problem for me as a leader and as a man is that rationalization blurs the boundaries of honesty. Even as I write this I am rationalizing why I should not write this. I start to wonder what people will think about me; how will I rationalize this post when others ask me about it.
Rationalization is a funny thing. It can benefit us when there is something so hard to deal with in our lives that our brains just have to rationalize it into something manageable. When my brother died in a car accident the only way I could cope with it was to rationalize each fact into manageable compartments. There was no other way that I could cope with the fact that he was gone. There are other times less traumatic when rationalization has been an asset for me. I have used this technique to explain why a project failed, why I did not get the job, and why I should eat that last cookie. The funny thing about the “R” word is that I stick with it until I am comfortable with the outcome. I don’t recall ever rationalizing myself into a corner or painting myself in a bad light. I mean what would be the purpose of that? In fact when I appear to be in the wrong something had to have gone wrong with my rationalization magic trick, right? I am sure some people reading this will be offended by my analogy of magic to explain rationalization.
One of the things I have done over the years to check my rationalizations so to speak is to establish an accountability partner. For me this is a friend that I highly respect. I trust him with my life and I share with him my craziest thoughts. On more than one occasion he was seen right through my magic trick. It is like he wrote the trick himself and therefore the illusion is transparent to him. It does not stop me from trying to rationalize my actions to my friend. However, what an accountability partner does is call me out when my rationalization is off base. I use this relationship to bounce off things that occur in my professional and business life. I use him as a checkpoint before making any huge decisions. I would love to tell you that as I mature my ability to check myself on the realities of my rationalizations has vastly improved, but the truth is it has been marginal at best. What has improved is my willingness to pause before I act and seek counsel.
- So why do we as human rationalize things?
- Why is it so hard for us to see only in black and white?
- Do those who see the grey really understand more?
- Should we view rationalization as a gift or a curse?
When my kids rationalize why they should have dessert even though they didn’t finish their dinner I see right through that trick. When someone at work rationalizes why they didn’t get to update the spreadsheet before an important meeting I see right through that. As humans we have plenty of experience spotting others rationalizations, but it is difficult in real time to spot our own. Again, this is why it is important to have others around you that are willing to call you out. Like a magician we are too close to our own tricks or rationalizations in this case. As a leader I must continue to keep my rationalizations in check and be willing to gently call others out on theirs. It is my responsibility to lead with integrity and hold others to the same standard. Here are some signs you might be rationalizing:
- If you find yourself rehearsing the reasons “why” you did something…you’re probably rationalizing.
- If every other word that comes out of your mouth is “yeah, but”…you’re probably rationalizing.
- If you are making excuses for why you did what you did…you’re probably rationalizing.
- If you hear yourself saying “ I know I did not get the promotion I worked hard for, but I really did not want it anyhow”…you’re probably rationalizing.