Explain, Don’t Justify

Explain, Don’t Justify

You can learn a lot about a person by paying attention to how they explain their decisions. They’ll go down one of two paths: justifying or providing a rationale. Unlike a rationale, which is simply a list of reasons why a certain decision has been made, a justification is a defense of a decision. It has an emotional component to it because the justifier feels under attack.

If a member of your team constantly justifies their decisions, try to understand why they feel so fearful. Are you inadvertently undermining them by countermanding their decisions? Are you not reinforcing the good choices they’ve made, causing them to always expect the worst? Is your behavior encouraging their defensiveness? If so, take steps to rectify the situation. If not, try to get to the bottom of their habit. After all, it’s rare that anyone intentionally makes bad decisions.

If you find yourself justifying, be aware that others can use “loaded” language as a political strategy to trigger you. It’s designed to put you on the defensive and make you look weak. If someone tries it with you, reframe their request in a neutral way so that you are not reinforcing a negative. Let’s say someone asks you, “What on earth were you thinking when you did x?” Instead of reacting to the language, reframe the question to something neutral like, “Based on your question, it’s clear that our reasons for decision x have not been communicated appropriately. Let me take you through our thinking.” Then stay neutral and provide your rationale. You want to stay in control and on topic, and maintain a powerful presence. Stay away from creating disruptive drama.

Another common way people start proactively justifying is by inserting silence in a conversation. The other person may just be thinking or reflecting on what you’ve just said about your decision, but you may then want to fill the void. And if you have the smallest doubt about your decision, it’s very tempting to start justifying it. That works against you because it encourages others to start dissecting your decision-making ability. After all, if you think there’s something wrong, they certainly have no reason to doubt you.

Manage how you respond, proactively read how others respond to you, and you’ll be more successful at work.

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