Reasons, Excuses, Rationalizations


The Actual Fence

My mother recently had a fence replaced.  The “Fence Guy” was a self-employed franchisee for a national chain.  When he did not show up on the appointed day my mother left three unreturned messages before complaining to the franchisor.  Fence Guy eventually called back and said he was behind and he would be there in three weeks.  Three weeks!  We were dumbstruck.  All he had to do was to review the status of his jobs each evening and make a couple of phone calls to reschedule if he saw he was falling behind.

Eventually Fence Guy showed up.  He looked like hell.  I imagined that he was working himself to death, had a dreadful disease, or was drinking heavily.  Something was wrong.

The next door neighbor later said that she invited Fence Guy in for coffee.  He confided that he had a fussy newborn baby and he was up most nights trying to rock the baby to sleep.  He couldn’t put in a full workday because he was just too sleep-deprived.

What Fence Guy did right. When re-scheduling the job he didn’t go into details that might start to smack of rationalizations or excuses.  He didn’t create drama that could signal to the customer that he was unable to manage his business. An explanation of “unforeseen personal circumstances” was sufficient.

What Fence Guy did wrong. He did not review his schedule and did not communicate.  It must have been obvious to him in advance that he was going to miss future deadlines.  We all mess up from time to time.  We need to communicate clearly and often and give our customers an early heads up.  Fence Guy did not do this.  He was likely rationalizing.

Here’s how I see it:

  • Just the facts = reason (accept consequences)
  • Reason + manipulation = excuse (avoid consequences)
  • Reason + justification = rationalization (nothing wrong here!)

Reasons: Things happen. “I cannot come to work today because I am ill.” is a clearly communicated reason.  People give clear reasons when they are communicating facts and are taking care of themselves.  An employee told me once that she needed to take a leave of absence because her uncle had died unexpectedly.  “My aunt and uncle raised me and are like my parents.  My aunt cannot run the business by herself, and it is her only means of support.  I need to run the business for a month or two until we can hire a manager.”  Short, non-manipulative, and poignant, this was an authentic summation of the facts.  When giving a reason you know that there might be negative consequences.  You know this and accept this.  You communicate neutrally what it is that you need to do.

Excuses: An excuse is an attempt to avoid the consequences of bad behavior.  This involves convincing others your excuse is worthy.  Details are often over-dramatized in order to manipulate.  Customers hate excuses, and Fence Guy may have been told by the franchisor to avoid them.  Unfortunately, he was unclear about the difference between a reason and an excuse.

Rationalizations: A rationalization is where you convince yourself that you have done nothing wrong, or your minor transgression was so reasonable that no-one could possibly fault you (the “reasonable person” defense).  This is where you redefine your behavior from unacceptable to acceptable.  Be careful.  You are entering victim territory.  You can lose your job or your business by engaging in rationalization.  Warning signs that you are rationalizing involve the following kinds of self talk:

  • My behavior is not so bad.  Any reasonable person would do this.
  • I shouldn’t have to explain myself.
  • I am doing my very best. Sorry if that’s not enough for you.
  • Hey, I endured worse from my boss, parent etc. so what’s your beef when I do it to you.
  • If they only knew the real story, they’d feel really bad about hassling me.
  • Other people have unreasonable expectations.

Lack of communication about problems is an excellent indicator of rationalization, because you have now convinced yourself that your behavior is acceptable.

Next time there is bad news about something you’ve done, think how you might approach the delivery of this news using reasons, excuses or rationalizations.  Choose wisely.

3 comments on “Reasons, Excuses, Rationalizations

  1. Tim
    January 27, 2014 at 8:04 pm #

    I hope I reposted this properly (I am way new to blogs).
    This was a great article. I thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn’t agree more.


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