First I’ll tell the story, then I’ll get to the point.
A few years back, one of the firms I worked for in DC was approached by a terrorist state. They wanted to hire us to do some PR and investment promotion. I’ll refrain from naming the country, but it’s near the Middle East, at the time it was lead by an infamous dictator and supporter of terrorism, and that dictator is now dead.
That sounds like Iraq, but it wasn’t Iraq.
While it was still a state sponsor of terrorism, the country had recently come around a bit with the international community. They’d renounced weapons programs and were allowing inspectors in – things like that. So, it made sense that they wanted to start inviting investment as well. It also made sense that there were oil executives at our meeting.
My boss and I met with the Ambassador and a few people from his economic development team (and the oil guys). Actually, given the dicey relationship with the United States, I don’t think he was the Ambassador. But he was their official representative to the United States at the time (likely the Chargé d’Affaires). Doubtful that he’d presented his credentials to and been accepted by the President of the United States. Like I said, terrorism and such.
Anyway, talks progressed and my company considered representing this country, despite the current leader’s murderous reputation.
How could anyone do that? Don’t you have a conscience? Your company must be evil to even consider doing business with someone like that!
That gets me to the whole point of this post – rationalization.
Mark Belling is a particularly obnoxious but also very sharp radio host in Milwaukee. He always says that rationalization is the second strongest human emotion (I never heard what the first was – so you’re free to speculate). And he’s right.
The power of rationalization is unbelievable. I’ve seen so many decisions go down that were clearly bad, and known at the time to be bad, but they were rationalized and justified until they were done with smiles all around. Critical thinking takes a back seat and hard truths are explained away.
I’ve seen terrible relationships continue, addiction thrive, silly things purchased (where I excel), and bad business deals made – all using rationalization to defy the glaring downsides. I speak from personal guilt and guilt by association.
OK, back to the terrorist state.
No matter what, any decision to represent this country had to take into consideration how terrible their track record was. It was bad.
But to be honest, I was initially excited by the prospect. I’d studied International Security in grad school, and this was a big player in that scene. It would be something new and challenging and very edgy.
Plus, others in the firm adopted a defense attorney’s perspective, which is to say, “Look, these guys deserve a fair shot. They should get to tell their side of the story. That bad stuff is behind them. New, more progressive leadership is right around the corner.”
All of these claims were totally legitimate (…at the time. That “progressive” leadership would eventually go to prison for crimes against humanity).
Our company also needed the business, which would be high-profile and lucrative. It’s amazing what kind of fire power “need” or “want” will add to rationalization.
But “needing” and “wanting” doesn’t mean we can abandon critical thinking. Were we really going to take money from a government that had American blood (and others) on its hands? One of the VPs and I talked about this a lot, and eventually we just couldn’t come around on it. We both asked for separate meetings with the company president where we officially protested taking on the client.
Our firm ended up passing on the business.
Thankfully, this is an instance where rationalization didn’t win the day. But it was clearly running rampant throughout the decision-making process, and the experience showed how powerful rationalization can be.
We almost stared at some of the largest and most obvious red flags and said, “Nope, all clear!” Had we taken that client, we would have compromised our own principals. As it turned out, we also would have been jumping onto a rapidly sinking ship.
Rationalization like this, big and small, takes place everyday. It’s likely you’ve already used some shoddy justification to do something you knew was wrong today. I know I have (damn running gear!).
We all do it, and we do it a lot.
The trick is to be aware of and vigilant against our own rationalization. It’s an incurable ailment, but we need to at least do our part to keep it in check.