June 2012: The “Single Cause” FallacyJune 1, 2012
Discussing personal and business problems with hundreds of leaders, I have asked, for example, what might have brought about Scott’s marital affair, Rita’s cancer, and the departure of Cheryl’s most talented leader? Most of the responses over-simplify:
“I wanted more excitement.”
“I smoked for 12 years.”
“She got an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.”
It’s rare for anyone to say: “You know, it’s complicated, and there are many contributing factors. Here are a few that come to mind…”
Over-simplifying to stay calm
Over-simplified thinking reassures us that we have nailed the underlying cause. That level of control and predictability calms us. We’re spared the discomfort of having to guess, wonder and test.
Delusion brings comfort, but it also produces weak decisions. Since my job is to help leaders become better thinkers and decision-makers, professionalism demands that I press through superficial responses to help my clients gain deeper knowledge.
Asking good questions can be invaluable in this effort.
In response to the surface-level explanations I cited at the beginning of this blog, I posed second-tier questions to help each individual upgrade his/her thinking:
When Scott revealed that his choice to engage an extra-marital affair was based on a desire for more excitement, I asked him if anyone else in his family ever had affairs, and what were the plusses and minuses. I asked him how excitement benefited him, and how it tied into his personal values.
When Rita reported that her cancer was caused by smoking, I got curious about why so many smokers don’t get cancer. I wondered about the extent of Rita’s family and social connectedness, her exercise habits, her fast-paced work environment, and about how she managed anxiety.
When Cheryl told me that her top salesperson, Kim, left for “greener pastures,” I inquired about her relationship with Kim. Did she know about Kim’s level of money motivation, or her work history with other bosses? What did Kim find most distasteful about her position with Cheryl’s company? Would a stronger connection with Kim have made a difference?
Leadership asset: Genuine wonderment
To ask such questions, I put myself in a curious and investigative frame of mind. I realize that the best gift I can offer others is not solutions, but my own genuine wonderment.
How did deeper questioning help Scott, Rita and Cheryl? I don’t know the full answer to that question, but I do believe that each benefited from having to question initial assumptions and think more thoroughly about their respective dilemmas. That qualifies as powerful value!
Leaders who ask thoughtful questions report high gains. It’s even more important for leaders themselves to avoid asking questions that beg for superficial responses. I regularly observe leaders posing weak questions in coaching sessions with their bosses, peers and key managers:
What caused the (partner) breakup?
Who’s responsible for the stock fluctuations?
Why does Jim come in late?
Such questions promote the kind of single-cause explanations that good leadership tries to avoid.
Generating responsible thinking
Better to ask questions that promote more responsible thinking:
Looking back, how would you describe your part in the partner difficulties?
In your view, what factors contribute to the stock fluctuations?
How do you handle it when an employee comes in late?
Asking thoughtful questions, listening for surface answers, and living peacefully with complexity are not skills for weak-kneed leaders. Not everyone welcomes depth. Once others discover you want more substance in interactions, less confident individuals might appear less relaxed. In fact, in every organization (families included) less mature individuals irritate easily when asked to think more thoroughly.
The hope is that the discomfort of those interactions will be outweighed by the benefits to those desiring growth and maturity.