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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.         The implication is that 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 actual 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 effort. Staff morale and  engagement is low and 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 cafe 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 is demonstrated by how we then behave – either withdrawing, resisting, complaining or needing constant updates and reassurance.  The change itself has no inherent power to make us feel or behave in a particular way. It’s only how we think about it that 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 example. A sales manager feels overwhelmed with his workload and believes the only way to solve the problem is to reduce the workload or leave his position.

In his perception, the Cause=Effect formula was;

Cause = Workload / Too much to do

Effect = Overwhelm, anxiety and lack of clarity

As he’s not in a position to delegate [he’s already given away all the work he can], 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 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 job appears. It’s a vicious cycle that instantly gets resolved when we realise the true cause-effect formula.

The Cause-Effect Formula :

Cause = our thinking shaped by our understanding of how reality works

Effect = the feelings/emotions, perceptions and reality that thought instantly creates

As a result of realising where our feelings and perceptions are actually coming from [thought], we regain our bearings, clarity and perspective and then one of the following happens:

a) The workload suddenly looks manageable rather than impossible

b) Or through our renewed clarity and perspective, we come up with fresh ideas for how to more effectively handle the workload. For example, we notice duplication of effort, unnecessary wastage, overly complex processes that we can influence or change, to reduce the workload.

If we want to enjoy our work, do our best and handle the challenges presented, we first have to make sure we correctly define a problem. All the time 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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