Rationalization – At the Heart of Ethical Challenges

Guest Blog:  By David Gebler, President, Skout Group, LLC

By and large, corporate leaders who get into ethics trouble are otherwise honest people. They believe in the Golden Rule; they think that they would always do the right thing.

So what happens to them? What makes them cross the line? Why do some people fall prey to temptation and others don’t?  The answers lie in how well a leader prepares his motivational defenses.

Rationalization Lights the Path to Unethical Behavior

The ladder to success requires a great deal of ambition. Leaders have to be assertive, if not often aggressive, in meeting tough objectives and demanding the most of their people. How well do leaders balance a desire to do the right thing with the drive to win and be successful? When those values and goals conflict, which can happen many times a day, how do they reconcile them?

But “balance” is not the right word to use, because this really is not a fair fight. Sitting in ambition’s corner is the power of rationalization. Rationalization is what allows us to devise self-satisfying, but incorrect reasons for our behavior. 

We all of course rationalize our actions all the time. We even rationalize our illegal actions, such as driving over the speed limit. But the greater the ambition, the stronger is the power to find reasons to justify actions that we know are not the right ones.

Managers face many options in making decisions on how to meet a wide variety of goals. Taking the most cautious and risk averse path is not what they are paid to do. They are expected to weigh the balance of risk and reward, but most often the bias is clearly towards the reward.

It often starts quite innocently. “If I have to wait until Form X is signed off on, we’ll miss the customer’s deadline.” Or, “I would never have stolen those documents from our competitor–but if they are in my inbox, am I expected to not open them?” 

Someone once said “inside your head is a very dangerous neighborhood.” Left alone, we spin our own web of rationalizations, of ends justifying means.  And as we have seen, the more powerful the ambition, the more shocking is the rationalization, all the way up to the New York Governor’s hotel suite.  That’s human nature, and that’s not going to change.

Defenses Against Rationalization

What we can do, however, is to bolster our defenses. In many instances managers make these risk-reward calculations alone. How many times have we convinced ourselves to do something–and then changed our minds at even the thought of asking a loved one or trusted confidante their opinion. 

Yet managers too often view seeking counsel as a sign of weakness or indecisiveness. They will often raise the dilemma only with subordinates who may be hesitant or unable to question the boss’s judgment.  Rationalization is very easy if you don’t get outside views from people you trust.

Intuitive leaders understand the need to seek the opinion of others before making close-call decisions. And forward thinking companies have set up processes that channel managers to verbalize both sides of the issue before making decisions that could have ethical consequences.

Human nature isn’t going to change. But if acknowledge it, we can do a better job at managing it.

Note from Charlie: I’m re-posting this one because it only got one hour in the limelight yesterday before being superseded by the ebook on sales.  David Gebler is a powerful thinker and consultant on this subject, and I want to give TrustMatters readers more time to absorb his simple but profound message.