The Five Most Dangerous Words in Business

  • 24 March 2014

You might think that the five most dangerous words in business would be associated with a corporate takeover  or a competitor’s challenge. In fact, this quote, from the insurance sector’s most famous chief executive, refers to an excuse. Berkshire Hathaway’s CEO, Warren Buffet, thinks the five most dangerous words in business are “everyone else is doing it”.

The financial turmoil of the past six years provides ample evidence for Buffet being spot on. The best that many banking executives could come up with as an explanation for their misconduct was that “everyone else was doing it”.

It’s one of a collection of terms often referred to as rationalisations. People use them to reshape their decision so as to make it appear not so bad as it really was. Remember that most misconduct in corporate settings is not done by bad people doing bad things, but by good people making bad choices. Those good people use rationalisations in an attempt to convince themselves, and others, that they weren’t acting so badly after all.

So what other rationalisations might you come across? Here are some more to complete the set:

Firstly, there’s the ‘denial of responsibility’. This often comes out in the phrase “I had no choice! There was no other option.”

Then there’s the ‘denial of loss’. You hear this expressed as :“No one will really be worse off.” And it’s a short step from denying any loss to questioning those loosing out: “Who are these people anyway?”

Thirdly, there’s the ‘appeal to other loyalties’.  Listen out for comments like: “The company needs this from me” and “I have a family to support”.

And then there’s the ‘claim to entitlement’. The classic remark here is: “I’ve worked hard on this deal; I deserve to win it”

Finally, one variation of “everyone else is doing it’ reads something like this: “If I don’t do it, then someone else will in my place”.

Rationalisations can serve as alarm bells that one of your good colleagues is about to make a bad choice. What you can do is help them to stop and reflect upon the bad choice they’re about to make. And even if the bad choice has already been made, it’s worthwhile spending a little time showing them where greater care needs to be taken next time round.

In a later post, I’ll look at various steps that each of us can take when worried about making a bad choice. And for an indepth look at rationalisations, read ‘Business Ethics and Moral Motivation’ by Joseph Heath in the Journal of Business Ethics (2008; 83:595-614).