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The Problem with Problems is a Cause-Effect Confusion by Chantal Burns

Imagine that you’re trekking through the forest, using your trusty compass to navigate through       the endless twists and turns, in order to get home. Now imagine if that compass were faulty.         Every turn you take is potentially taking you further away from where you need to be.

The biggest issue with solving problems is a faulty navigation system which means we often don’t have the real problem correctly defined.

Often what we think is the problem is actually the symptom of a faulty navigation system, which in the case of human performance is caused by a confusion between cause and effect.

Let’s take the example of an organisation embarking on a big change programme where staff morale and engagement is low. The leadership team believes the cause is uncertainty and insecurity caused   by lack of effective communication and a need for reassurance about the changes being made, so  they spend time implementing a new communications strategy. But when morale and engagement shows  no improvement despite an increase in the frequency and type of communication, the leaders are left wondering what went wrong. The answer is that it wasn’t an uncertainty or communication problem.  It was a perception problem.

If more information or reassurance was the solution, then everyone would settle down and get engaged in change programmes but that isn’t what happens.  What we see is that some people seem more secure and get on board while others sit in the local pub discussing conspiracy theories or working out their next move.

This is a typical example of the cause-effect confusion.

The true cause of low morale or insecurity is how we are thinking and the effect are those feelings, demonstrated by how we then behave – perhaps withdrawing, resisting, complaining or needing constant updates and reassurance.

A change programme itself has no inherent power to make us feel or behave in a particular way. Only our thinking can do that, as evidenced by the wide range of different attitudes, responses and behaviours that people display during corporate change initiatives.

Let’s take another common example. A manager feels overwhelmed with his demanding workload and believes the only way to solve the problem is to reduce the workload.

In his perception, the Cause=Effect formula is;

Cause of feeling overwhelmed = Workload / Too much to do

Effect =  Anxiety / lack of clarity and control

As he’s not in a position to delegate further work, he feels even more overwhelmed and out of control.  What seems like a quantity problem is in fact a perception problem. His feelings of overwhelm are coming from his thinking about how much he has to do and his subsequent perceptions of his ability to handle it.     The more he thinks about it in that way, the more those feelings of anxiety increase, the more his clarity and perspective is compromised and in turn, the more of an uphill struggle his work appears to be. It’s a vicious cycle that instantly gets resolved when we realise the true cause-effect formula.

The Cause-Effect Formula :

Cause of feeling overwhelmed = our moment to moment thinking shaped by our understanding of how reality works

Effect = the emotions, perceptions and reality created by the power of thought which drive our subsequent behaviour and actions

As a result of realising where our feelings and perceptions are actually coming from [the power of thought], we stop blaming something or someone else and in doing so we regain our bearings, bandwidth and clarity resulting in new perspectives which might include;

  • Through clearer thinking, the workload looks more manageable rather than impossible
  • Our renewed clarity and perspective brings insight or ideas for how to more effectively address the workload. For example, we notice duplication of effort, unnecessary wastage or overly complex processes that we can directly influence, in order to make the workload more manageable.

I am not saying these are the only potential outcomes – they are examples of what becomes possible when we have a clearer grasp of reality and what’s happening for us.

If we want to enjoy our work, do our best and handle the challenges presented, it’s helpful to make sure we correctly define problems. All the time that we spend looking in the wrong direction for the cause and solution, we will continue to suffer the false starts and blind alleys that our innocent cause-effect confusion creates.


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