Self justification is all pervasive! It is the act of offering ‘excessive’ reasons, explanations or excuses to justify our thoughts or actions, usually when being challenged by others.
Listen to any political debate, family dispute or colleagues discussing work issues and you will easily pick up how people choose arguments which are self serving. This note is not targeted at the small number of people who deliberately set out to deceive but rather the rest of us, who unconsciously take positions not supported by all the facts or a full appreciation of all relevant perspectives.
Before discussing the down sides of self justification it is useful to reflect on why we are wired to do it. Defending positions we take protects our sense of self worth and helps us to stay aligned with the image we have of ourselves as being fundamentally honourable, decent and competent. This is a strong motivator. It is wise to assume that we DO self justify, as it can be deeply uncomfortable and difficult for us to acknowledge that we may be acting in ways which fall short of our highest values/self image.
So how sure are we that the positions we take are evidence based, and would stand up to objective analysis of the facts ? Maybe not as sure as we should be!
Consider the following:
Firstly, many of the positions we take are based on long and deeply held beliefs, based on our upbringing, education, the people we hang out with and our life experiences. Most of us have only a narrow life experience, which potentially limits our capacity to see other perspectives.
Secondly, our views are informed by our recollection of past events. There is lots of research now which suggests that we distort our memory of events to suit our current self concept. We are prone to inventing, falsifying and modifying our life stories (not intentionally) to align with the overall story of how we see our place in the world.
Thirdly, we rely on stereotyping. Examples, fat people are lazy, blondes are dumb etc etc etc. This is a lazy and unreliable way to form our views.
Taking a position on a topic is one thing but how open are you to changing a position once taken? The following are scenarios where it will be particularly difficult for us to modify a position once taken or admit that we have been wrong :
- Beliefs. The stronger our beliefs the more difficult it will be for us to remain open to information which runs contrary to those beliefs. We will tend to screen out information that does nor support our beliefs. To a large extent ‘believing is seeing’ particularly where we have strongly held views. For example, many have strong views on such issues as gun control and abortion.
- Experts. If our self image is based on being an expert it will be particularly difficult for us to concede that we may have erred in a judgement, in view of potential damage to our reputation.
- Public stance. If we have ‘nailed our colours to the mast’ in taking a particular stance, we will have difficulty accepting what we will see as the humiliation of a public climb down.
- Stakes are high. Admitting we have made a mistake will be more difficult if there are serious financial or other consequences.
- Sunk cost. This is the classic ‘good money after bad’ scenario. We will be less inclined to change course if we have invested heavily in what is a failed venture. We are more inclined to believe that the situation will turn around the more we have invested to date.
- Career implications. Our perception, which may not be correct, that there will be negative career implications for admitting that we have made a mistake.
- Conflict of interest. It is a reasonable assumption that where we have an inherent conflict of interest that it will make us less objective. There is ample research to support this assertion.
- Position evolved over time. We can walk ourselves into untenable positions by stealth, step by step over time, which we then feel obliged to defend.
The important thing to appreciate about the above is that no amount of denial will ultimately change the facts. The longer the denial of a mistake continues the greater the pain in the end.
Most of us do not self justify consciously or with any malicious intent. This makes it all the more difficult to identify when we are doing it – all the more reason to consciously seek out information which runs contrary to our current views. We are all potentially subject to bias, most especially those of us who believe otherwise! So seek out and name your biases.
The good news is that admitting to a mistake has significant upsides. If there is a need for you to apologise, be fulsome and unconditional. It is liberating to finally own up to the error and it ‘clears the decks’ to move forward. It also makes it possible to have a meaningful ‘Lessons Learned’ exercise to avoid a repetition of past mistakes. It can enhance rather than take from your reputation as a leader. Others will be more forgiving than you thought, to err is human after all and infallibility is a delusion.
Finally, in order to limit the potential for mistakes to go undetected make sure that those exercising power also have accountability, there is independent oversight in your systems and avoid conflicts of interest. At the personal level do not take positions until you have all the facts from different perspectives (don’t rely on opinions), be open to new facts emerging and above all bring your biases into consciousness. Don’t see mistakes by yourself or others as evidence of incompetence, rather ‘learning opportunities’ – this will make people more likely to own and own up to their errors.
Test – how often have you admitted to making a mistake in say, the last 12 months?