Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How To Rationalize Bad Behavior

From time to time we all behave badly. Everyone makes mistakes.

Of course, we do not always recognize mistakes as such. Even when we do, we often recoil before the requirements to make amends for bad behavior and to work to improve our behavior in the future.

Some people consult with therapists and coaches because they want to learn to behave better. Yet, when they discover what they have to do to improve it, they become less committed.

They opt for the alternative. They prefer thinking that what they did was not all that bad, and that it needs to be understood, not improved on.

If they land on the couch of the wrong kind of therapist they will be induced to study what their bad behavior might have meant in the context of their childhood, not what it might have meant to the person who witnessed it.

Therapists pretend that once a mistake is filled with meaning it will not even want to repeat itself. Their efforts are simply a high-priced lesson in rationalization.

Mistakes are not meaningful. If you offend your neighbor, your friend, or your spouse, you should not take it as a golden opportunity to unearth another infantile trauma.

Under the aegis of such a therapist a person will learn that he can continue to behave badly, only now he can feel good about it because he understands why he does it.

Of course, therapy is supposed to help you to discover who you really are. But then, it allows people to use this pseudo-discovery to rationalize bad behavior.

This is the king of rationalizations. It is brilliantly analyzed by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith in an essay aptly entitled: "Do You Have an Excessive Need to Be Yourself." Link here.

Goldsmith explains that while some behaviors that are uniquely ours are good, others are bad. When people say that they are being themselves by being late all the time or by being easily distracted... they are protecting a bad habit by rationalizing.

As Goldsmith puts it: "...we can learn to excuse any annoying action by saying: 'That's just the way I am.'"

I think that all of us, regardless of our profession, have heard this mantra far more often than we would like.

Goldsmith also observes that behaving badly is not necessarily the same as behaving unethically. A CEO refused to offer positive recognition to the people who worked for him. He rationalized his failure by explaining: "He had high standards-- and people did not always meet them. He didn't like to hand out praise indiscriminately-- because this cheapened the value of the praise when it was deserved. He believed that singling out individuals would weaken the team."

In the world of rationalizations these are very good,indeed. Yet, they were compromising the success of his business because they were demoralizing those who worked for him.

Goldsmith did not question the man's motives. He did not question why this CEO had made a fetish of parsimony. Instead he worked with him to develop his benevolence.

He coached the CEO to replace his bad habit of giving praise parsimoniously with the good habit of distributing it benevolently... whether he felt like it or not.


palmcop said...

It can't work in actual fact, that's what I think.

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