rationalization and redirection

As a business leader, are you prone to rationalization and redirection, or are you exercising true leadership?


It’s easy to fall into the rationalization trap. Your colleague or predecessor took action which you view as inappropriate. There may have been repercussions, but not as severe as you would have hoped, and the outcome was to their benefit.

So now the tables have turned, and you are in the position of calling the shots. Do you do what you once condemned, or do you do what you demanded they do, even if it is to your detriment?

Or perhaps you have an employee or colleague who is rationalizing their actions. Is it acceptable?

There are many variants of rationalization.

  • “If it was OK for them, it must be OK for me,” is the simplest. Indeed actions set precedents. What is permissible once should be permissible again. The danger is that the first action was wrong, and should not be used as a precedent.
  • “Well, it was OK for them, so by extension my actions are also OK.” This is the extended version of the above. If it was OK for someone to steal a chicken, then it is OK for me to steal six chickens.
  • “It was wrong for them, but my situation is different.” Things can be different, the rationalization trap is citing differences which are either superfluous or non-existent.
  • “I’m balancing things out. What they did was wrong, and I’m doing the same thing, so we’re even. After this, we both need to do what is right.” The question is, when will things become truly evenly balanced?

Rationalization, or basing decisions on reason, is not inherently evil. When the underlying premises are skewed, we are venturing into the land of lame excuses and justifying unjustifiable behavior.


The world is complex, with innumerable issues vying for our attention and action. It can be difficult to keep on topic. Even in general conversation, one subject leads to another, and then another.

The challenge arises when a discussion is diverted away from the core question or issue, which remains unanswered. Sometimes the diversion is inadvertent, but sometimes the diversion is strategic and manipulative.

Consider the following redirection tactics:

  • “But what about ….!!”followed by a marginally or totally irrelevant issue. This is perhaps the quickest and most effective redirection. Once the question is raised, it demands an answer. Whether you respond, “What do you mean?” or “How is that related?” or “That’s not the same thing at all.” or even, “That’s not the issue we’re discussing,” the whole discussion has been steered off topic, possibly never to return. .
  • “Well, you know what they always say, ….” This one is followed by a legitimate or illegitimate adage, and the discussion veers off into the applicability or inapplicability of the adage to the subject at hand, rather than the subject itself.
  • The personal attack: “Well, honey, you should know better than that,” or “I’m so surprised that you aren’t better informed,” or “You’re falling for the party line,” or, “That’s a typical ____ comment.” The core topic is suddenly offline for the indefinite future, while everyone deals with defending themselves, lashing back, or keeping the resulting mayhem from turning bloody.
  • “Forget it. I’m out of here.” If the perpetrator really leaves, the discussion might actually proceed. Usually, however, this is followed by a huffy expository on how everyone is against them, how they aren’t being heard, how the whole discussion is a sham and the decisions are already made, and an accusation that “You people…..” So the discussion backtracks to defend all previous statements and placate the perpetrator, rather than focusing on the issues at hand.

Redirection is the sign of a loser. Most often, those who see progress in resolving an issue, whether or not that resolution is 100% to their liking, want to stay on topic. Redirection is throwing a monkey wrench into the process; “If I can’t win, no one will win.”

Rationalization and Redirection and Leadership:

So what’s a leader to do? We’re all human, and exercise rationalization and redirection, both inadvertently and, on occasion, purposefully. As leaders, we also deal with these issues from others, on an ongoing basis.

Rationalization and redirection have great implications for precedents, protocols, processes, decision-making and ongoing effectiveness. They can sidetrack progress, cause dissension and set an organization on a course for disaster.

There are even greater personal implications for leaders. Rationalization and redirection are part of everyday life which have an impact on professionalism and credibility. Don’t erode your professional presence by relying on these tactics to establish your position.

Rationalization and redirection are realities of business and ongoing issues for leaders. Be aware of their impact. Recognize these tactics in others, as well as in yourself. Assess your position and take action to exercise leadership in control of rationalization and redirection.