Self-Justification and Organizational Project Commitment

Self-justification is an underlying motive for decision makers who remain committed to failing projects. However, as Steinkuhler et al. (2014) indirect, it may also be described as an indirect cause of escalation of commitment. The way in which justification is manifested in the decision making process requires the medium of new cognitive constructs that assist the decision maker in the process of renewing commitment. These constructs can consist of selective perception, sunk cost effect, and over-optimism. In many cases, these are not isolated constructs but work in tandem to help bring about the justification which the decision maker wishes to evince regarding the project. This paper will summarize the study by Steinkuhler et al. (2014) and show how the construct of selective perception has been utilized by the international organization known as the SSPX — a fraternal priestly Society within the Catholic Church — as it has attempted to remain committed to a controversial course of action that some of leaders and decision makers within the organization have opposed. It will discuss the effects of this escalation of commitment as a result of selective perception and offer a recommendation for what the Society could do in order to rectify the situation which has resulted in a fracturing of the Order.

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The Study

Steinkuhler et al. (2014) show that self-justification is an indirect driver of commitment escalation in failing projects. Determining whether to abandon a project that is not succeeding in the business world is a challenging one for executives, though as the researchers point out the common tendency is to stick with the project and become “locked in” even though it means “throwing good money after bad” (Steinkuhler et al., 2014, p. 67). Thus, the escalation of commitment occurs — but self-justification is a root cause for it in the first place.

In their study, Steinkuhler et al. (2014) provide an overview of the literature related to escalation of commitment, identifying Staw (1976) as the first academic to discuss the subject. As a corollary, self-justification is viewed as a direct cause — but it is the argument of Steinkuhler et al. that it is actually an indirect cause because it triggers “other cognitive processes” that hamper the executive’s ability to cut ties with a failing project (p. 67). In order to justify the self, the executive’s thought processes change: selective perception is affected, sunk cost effect is produced and overoptimism results — and these three cognitive processes are what result in the escalation of commitment: the self-justification is only an indirect motivator; the other three variables are what directly lead to commitment escalation.

The researchers examine their theory by studying the venture capitalist world of business, as it is an environment in which decision-makers must routinely decide whether or not to abandon a project that is not succeeding. At the same time, they explain what is meant by self-justification, selective perception, sunk cost, and over-optimism.

The idea of self-justification is that when one embarks on a project, having deemed it a good idea, there is the tendency to remain committed to it and to commit ever more resources to it even when it shows to be failing, because the ego of the person wants to be proven correct in the end: this is what is meant by self-justification. The commitment stems from the decision maker wanting to be able to justify himself in the end by having a project that succeeds. Admitting failure would be to admit that one was wrong.

The concept of selective perception is one in which “blinders” so to speak are put on. That is, the decision maker only sees that portion of the data that he wants to see and ignores the rest. “Biased belief updates,” for example, are one way in which selective perception is manifested in the business world (Steinkuhler et al., 2014, p. 194). Instead of new updates informing beliefs, initial beliefs inform the evaluation. There is no real evaluation or modification taking place. It is a system in which bias on the part of the decider is rooted in the first assessment and does not incorporate new information or possibility for developing understanding.

Sunk cost effect is described as money, time and energy being so invested in a project that it cannot be retrieved — therefore, project managers are more likely to continue on with the course of action, seeing that one might as well continue on with the original plan since the resources allocated to it cannot be returned away. Thus, more time, energy and money is sunk into a project and “good money” follows “bad” as the saying goes.

Over-optimism is defined as the “tendency of decision makers to systematically overestimate the probability of good performance and underestimate the probability of bad performance” (p. 195). The reason for this is that the decision maker is extremely hopeful or does not consider or believe that anything bad or unfortunate could occur to plague the project or to cause delays or misfortune to happen.

The findings of the study by Steinkuhler et al. (2014) show that, according to their survey method and analysis, that there is sufficient “external validity” of the argument tested in the field; and that the decision makers in the venture capitalist field utilize selective perception, sunk-cost effect and over-optimism in order to create the means through which “self-justification indirectly drives escalation” (p. 210). In other words, their findings show that self-justification is still the underlying reason for the escalation of commitment but that the three other variables act as constructs by which the need to justify is rationalized by the decision maker.

In the Field

In the international organization field, the Fraternal Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) is an example of an organization that has engaged in selective perception in order to remain committed to a project that is failing. To understand the significance of the project, some context must be given. The SSPX is an organization with the Church that has been accused of schism and has even had its founder Archbishop Lefebvre excommunicated from the Church for his refusal to obey the command of the Church’s head, the Pope in the 1980s, when the Archbishop consecrated four bishops without the Pope’s approval. The SSPX was founded as an organization to maintain the traditional teaching of the Church prior to the Church’s new stance on various subjects in the 1960s when the Second Vatican Council commenced and issued new declarations on marriage, society, and the nature and structure of the Church. Lefebvre and his followers developed the SSPX in order to continue to teach and guide persons in the Church according to the traditional doctrines prior to the Council. This did not please many Church leaders in Rome who wanted to move away from the traditional concepts and embrace modern ways. When Lefebvre died in 1991, a new leader for the SSPX was found in Bp. Fellay, who immediately set about engaging the leaders in Rome with a dialogue that was meant to restore relationship between the two entities and give the Society a better standing in the Church.

Fellay’s project was initially met with cautious approval by the other three bishops, but as the process went on, it became clear that the leaders in Rome wanted the Society leaders to capitulate on their principles, and to admit that the new teachings from the Council were good and could be interpreted in a positive manner and thus were not harmful in and of themselves. Bp. Fellay approved of this idea but the other bishops did not and they said as much publicly and urged Bp. Fellay to abandon the project as it was evidently failing: the leaders in Rome were in no way prepared to accept the old traditional teachings and did not want them around; their aim was to subvert the Society, these three bishops felt. They pointed to various actions by the leaders in Rome and the Pope which they viewed as being evidence of a bad will on the part of the Church leaders, which meant that they could not be trusted in any sort of deal or arrangement and that the best course of action for the Society was to continue to operate autonomously without approval from Rome because to seek approval and place itself under the Roman leaders’ authority would be to abandon the course laid out by the Society’s founder Lefebvre.

Fellay did not agree: he used selective perspective to show that the will of the Roman leaders was good; he cited letters that he received and discussions that he held personally with the Pontiff; and he ignored the evidence brought by the other bishops, which showed that the Roman leaders said one thing and did another; in short, their words did not match their actions. Fellay wanted a deal to be made, however, and continued with the project of discussing a resolution to the conflict between the two entities. As a result the Society itself broke up and became divided. One of the three bishops left the Society and organized dozens of priests around the world in Asia, South America, North America and Europe. But for Fellay, even as his SSPX was falling apart around him, it remained “business as usual,” and he and his followers accepted that even if the project should ultimately fail it was better to go ahead with it because of the selective perspective that Fellay held, which was that the Roman leaders should be obeyed and followed (even though this was the exact opposite of the Society’s founder’s assessment of the situation — which was that they should be resisted so long as their aims were opposed to what the Society was trying to do) (Anand, Ashforth, Joshi, 2005).

Fellay’s decision to pursue the project and remain committed to the reconciliation posed by the Roman leaders had a negative effect both internationally and domestically. In every country where the Society had a station headquarters, divisions were seen: parishes broke apart and new parishes were started with persons who followed the bishop who left the SSPX leading the way. The Society received bad press in the international media, as Fellay was seen to be at odds with the other leaders of the SSPX. The internal structure of the SSPX became weakened and the leaders lost credibility as they became the scorn of others who saw Fellay as betraying the vision of the Society’s founder. Fellay was mocked and satirized in independent publications and on social media and a had to be undertaken by Fellay in each of the countries so that the Society did not completely disintegrate. It was a very costly affair, and Fellay in order to appear of good will to the Roman leaders, scoured the official website of the SSPX of any critical aspects of the Vatican and undertook an overall cosmetic endeavor so as to make it appear that the organization was more unified than it really was. Those who objected ultimately left and the Society’s numbers were lessened as a result.

Because the decision of Fellay led to poor results I would recommend in the future that he take better stock of the situation and not use selective perspective to justify his commitment to a failing project. It is better to admit that one is wrong than to upset the entire balance and purpose of an organization by re-directing its original aim and changing its founding principles so as to achieve an objective committed to erroneously. Bad leaders do not typically produce positive fruits in an organization and this has been the case in the SSPX over the past 3-4 years as the organization has continued to lose respect and credibility in the eyes of members and non-members the world over, which is in keeping with the assessment of Schyns and Schilling (2013) — that bad leaders have a destructive effect on organizations, mainly through their self-centered desires. Thus, self-justification is problematic because at root it is more concerned with the self than with the well-being of the organization overall. Change leadership could be an effective remedy to the situation, too, as it would re-direct the principles of the SSPX back to their original formulation, which would be in keeping with the overall aim of the Society and be a way for restoring credibility (Boaz, Fox, 2014). As Beshears and Gino (2015) note, “all employees, from CEOs to frontline workers, commit preventable mistakes” — the point is to learn from them and keep from letting them happen again.

In conclusion, self-justification is the main reason for commitment escalation but it can be evinced indirectly through selective perception, sunk cost effect, or over-optimism. With Fellay in the SSPX it could be argued that there was a combination of all three of these things, which is typically the case as the study by Steinkuhler et al. (2014) has shown. Each of the three variables serve as intercommunicating constructs that provide the avenue for self-justification to assert itself and decision makers to remain committed to a course of action that is failing.


Anand, V., Ashforth, B., Joshi, M. “Business as usual: The acceptance and perpetuation of corruption in organizations” Academy of Management Executive, 19, no. 4 (2005): 9-23.

Beshears, J., Gino, F. (2015). Leaders as decision architects. Harvard Business Review.

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Boaz, N., Fox, E. A. (2014). Change leader, change thyself. McKinsey Quarterly: 1-11.

Schyns, B., Schilling, J. (2013). How bad are the effects of bad leaders? A meta-

analysis of destructive leadership and its outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 24: 138-158.

Steinkuhler, D. et al. (2014). How self-justification indirectly drives escalation of commitment. SBR, 66: 191-221.