Beware of single cause explanations

As human beings we are very effective information processors. Our senses are exposed to a huge amount of data every minute we are awake. If you don’t believe me, just look around the room that you are in. Look at the colours, the shapes, the textures. Add to that what you can hear, what you can smell and what you can touch. And, of course, the raw data is just the surface – we also need to look below that surface to take account of the meanings we attach to each of those bits of sense data (and how those bits fit together to make a coherent whole).

So, on a daily basis we are processing and filtering a huge amount of information. In order to remain sane we need to be able to work out which bits of information are important to us and discard the rest, or at least put it to one side for now. We do that by processing the information through two sets of filters, rational and emotional. The rational filter tells us which bits of information matter to us in terms of what we are trying to do, whatever activity we are involved in. For example, if we are reading, as you are doing right now, we focus on the text in order to make sense of it and filter out other information – the keyboard if you are reading on a computer, and so on.

The emotional filter will focus on what matters to us in terms of our feelings, giving attention to those things that appeal to us (at one extreme) and those things that threaten us (at the other). For example, as someone who gets great pleasure from music, I will tend to ‘tune in’ to any music I come across, whereas others who are not great music lovers may not even notice there is music in the background.

One of the implications of all this is that we are perpetually simplifying the complex world around us, constantly finding ways of making hugely complex situations intelligible. This is a necessary part of dealing with the information overload we face on a daily basis. So, this is a good thing. However, there is a danger associated with it – namely, we can try to explain very complex situations in very simple ways. This is where single cause explanations (or monocausal explanations, to use the technical term). It is very rare that that things happen for a single reason. It is usually a combination of factors.

The key term here is ‘confluence’. It refers to how different forces come together to produce a single result. For example, imagine a conflict developing between two people. It could easily be explained monocausally by saying simply: ‘Here are two people who don’t get on’. But, if you look at it more closely, that leaves a number of causal factors out of the picture (not least why they do not get on with each other). Consider the timing. If they don’t get on, why did the conflict arise today, rather than yesterday or tomorrow? Why has it arisen at all? Many people who do not get on simply bypass one another and avoid conflict. And so on.

The notion of confluence means that we need to think holistically – that is, to look at the big picture (what is sometimes called helicopter vision – the ability to rise above a situation). Without this, a reliance on monocausal explanations can lead us into all sorts of difficulties because it involves oversimplifying – and therefore distorting – whatever situation we are involved in.


Develop recovery strategies

Perhaps in an ideal world things would never go wrong. But, of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, and things will inevitably go wrong from time to time for each and every one of us. We can do our best before we reach that point to try to make sure that any such problems are avoided or, if they do happen, that their impact is kept to a minimum. But, we can never guarantee that something will not go wrong somewhere along the line. Rising to the challenges of things going wrong is an important part of life, of course, and also offers us a significant source of learning.

So, where does that leave us? Well, this is where the idea of ‘recovery strategies’ comes in. A recovery strategy is a means of trying to rectify a situation that has gone awry, a way of putting things right or at least get as close to that as possible. In many situations, sadly, there cannot be a recovery strategy – that is, the situation is irrecoverable (for example, when someone dies).

There is no limit to the number of potential recovery strategies that we could come up with. Examples of such strategies would include:

  • A decision is made that has an adverse effect on you. Can the decision be appealed or blocked in some other way? If not, can you get round it somehow?
  • You have unwittingly annoyed, upset or offended someone. Can you resolve the situation by apologising or otherwise undoing the harm done – for example, by clearing up any misunderstandings?
  • You have failed to achieve something in the way you had planned to – for example, trying to impress someone. Is there another way in which you can achieve it, another way of impressing that person?
  • You have lost someone’s email address and you need to send them a message. Can you get the address from a third party or perhaps phone the person to give them the message instead?

These are fairly straightforward examples, but recovery strategies can also be quite complex at times, depending on the circumstances. None the less, the logic remains the same. It is basically a process of saying to yourself: Something has gone wrong here; what are my options for putting it right as far as possible?

Note that I say options, plural. It is often the case that there will be more than one recovery strategy option available to us. So, this means that, at times, we will need to weigh up carefully the options available to make sure that we are putting ourselves into the strongest position for putting things right. Jumping in to the first one that comes to mind could prove to be very unwise.

A common obstacle to the use of recovery strategies is defeatism, the tendency for people to respond to something going wrong in a negative way, to moan about it and rail against it, rather than to seek to rectify the situation. This reaction will often prove problematic, as it means wrongs that could have been put right remain untouched.

Much of my work in various capacities over the years has involved helping people to recognise, develop and make full use of recovery strategies. Often, the possibility of drawing on one or more recovery strategies was being hampered by a sense of shock (ranging from mild to severe) as a result of whatever it was that had gone wrong. So, it is a valuable lesson to bear in mind that, whenever something does go wrong, we need to include a consideration of recovery strategies in our response to the situation we face.

Beware of cynicism

The word ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek word for dog, so to be cynical literally means to be dog like, in the sense of not caring, of being happy to let the world pass you by. It involves not making an emotional investment, of being detached and disengaged.

For many people cynicism is an emotional coping mechanism – if you don’t put your heart into something, you are much less likely to get hurt by it. And, without that emotional engagement, the result is likely to be negativity and defeatism. You can’t succeed at something if you don’t engage with it. But, equally, you can’t fail, which is a big part of the appeal of cynicism as a coping method – it is a protective mechanism.

Of course, you are highly unlikely to convince a cynic of this, as they will just dismiss the idea, not engage with it and, that way, be safe from it (or at least feel safe from it). Cynicism can be as a result of burnout, of emotional exhaustion – for example, as a result of work overload or being exposed to very stressful circumstances. But, we should not make the mistake of equating cynicism with burnout – many people have cynical tendencies without being even the slightest bit burnt out.

It can be helpful to think of cynicism as one extreme of a continuum, with a naïve idealism at the other extreme. In between the two is the healthy balance of scepticism. A sceptic is someone who questions, who does not take things at face value (which is what a naïve idealist would do), but who does not dismiss things as a matter of course (which, of course, is what a cynic is likely to do). A person adopting a sceptical approach avoids these two unhealthy extremes. By avoiding naïve idealism we are less open to being exploited by ruthless people who will seek to take advantage of any such naivety. And, by avoiding cynicism we avoid wallowing in negativity and the tendency to give up without trying.

Cynicism can be contagious, in the sense that just one cynical person can poison the atmosphere with negativity across a whole group of people. For example, I have come across many situations in which one person’s temporary absence can immediately contribute to a higher level of motivation and morale, while their presence normally undermines such things. We therefore have to be wary of not only any tendency towards cynicism we may have ourselves, but also the danger of being adversely affected by someone else’s cynicism.

In a sense, cynicism is a form of (negative) leadership. If we bear in mind that a key part of leadership is the ability to shape the culture in which they are operating, it is often the case that a cynic is dragging the culture down, contributing to negativity, defeatism and an unduly pessimistic outlook. Consequently, what is often required as a counterbalance to cynicism is positive leadership, the ability (and willingness) of one or more people to take the ethos or ‘mood’ in a more positive direction. This will free people up to be more motivated, more creative, more productive, more open to learning and, in all likelihood, happier.

There is no simple ‘cure’ or easy answer when it comes to cynicism, but there are things that can be done to guard against it, not least keeping the healthy balance of scepticism in mind. If in doubt, we can ask: is this a positive, constructive questioning stance that is being adopted, or does it cross the line into negative and dismissive cynicism?

Be proactive: Make things happen

Throughout my career I have come across people time and time again who are unhappy about one or more aspects of their lives who, when I ask them what they are doing to address those issues, respond with a shrug of the shoulders or the verbal equivalent. It is as if they feel overwhelmed by the situation and therefore adopt a passive approach to it.

I have sometimes felt a bit of a fraud because it has often been the case that my saying: ‘So, what are you going to do about it?’ and helping them to formulate some meaningful answers to that question have been enough to free them up to take some positive steps. The ensuing progress – often very significant progress once they shook off that passivity – would then lead them to tell me how I had worked miracles for them and inspired them. Of course, I may have inspired them to a certain extent, but there were certainly no miracles involved – just a straightforward process of being proactive, of making happen the things that needed to happen.

A key part of what leads to that passivity is that, when people are feeling low, under pressure or otherwise feeling at well below their best, they can feel anxious and unconfident – as if taking the risk of any further pressure leads them to settle for their current unhappy situation (better to be unhappy but coping than to risk trying to improve things and end up not able to cope).

Another factor can be that, when we are under pressure, and especially if we are feeling anxious, it can be difficult to think clearly; we can easily get muddled and feel unsure of ourselves. This can lead to a vicious circle in which anxiety leads to a lack of clear thinking and then struggling to think clearly can make us feel more anxious – and round and round it goes.

But, life does not have to be like this. We can break out of this circle by asking ourselves: So, what are we going to do about it? As I have found myself saying time and time again throughout my career, there are no situations where we have complete control and none where we have no control – there is always something we can do to affect the circumstances we find ourselves in.

First of all, we need to make it clear: What exactly is it that is causing us to feel unhappy? This may seem like an obvious thing to say, but in reality it is very commonly the case that we are not sure what it is that ails us, especially if it is a combination of factors working in tandem.

It can then be helpful to think in terms of three levels of reaction to each of these problems:

  1. Solving the problem Is there any way we can solve the problem, whether in the short, middle or long term, with or without support? Is there anyone who can help us with this or support us through the process?
  2. Alleviating the problem If we can’t solve the problem and thereby remove it altogether, what can we do to minimise it, reduce its impact and/or steer clear of it as much as possible? Some problems cannot be solved but they can be effectively managed.
  3. Accommodating to the problem If you cannot solve the problem, and how far you can alleviate it is fairly limited, what can you do to try to stop the problem from, in effect, ruining your happiness? How can you be reasonably happy despite the problem?

But, remember that we can’t do any of this if we are not clear what the problem(s) are, so get thinking carefully about what exactly the source of the malaise is.

Balance stability and change

If life never changed, if everything was the same over and over again, we would be very unhappy, bored and far from contented. Same old same old is not a recipe for a life well lived. However, if everything was constantly changing, we would feel very insecure. Imagine getting up each morning and there is little or nothing you can count on to be the same as it was yesterday. We would no doubt feel disorientated.

People often say that the only thing that remains constant is change, as I have argued many times, that is not true. Life is a mixture of changes and constants, but we tend to focus mainly on the changes. This is for three reasons. First, as biological organisms we tend to respond to changes in our environment and will soon learn to take for granted those aspects that remain the same. This is partly a defence mechanism, in the sense that tuning in to changes in our environment helps to alert us to potential threats. In this respect, it is s survival mechanism. Second, changes in our environment bring not only threats, but also opportunities, situations that we can enjoy and benefit from. Third, the mass media, such a powerful influence on behaviour and feelings in this day and age, tend to focus on changes (it is no coincidence that we have the ‘new’ in news and newspapers (oldspapers would not have the same appeal).

So, what we are encountering once again is a need for balance. Too much change will overwhelm us, but too little change will underwhelm us. Of course, when it comes to change, much is beyond our control, but we should not underestimate how much control we do have, in terms of both what changes (or does not) and our reaction to any such changes.

What can be helpful is to think about what we would want to change and what we would want not to change (what we would want to safeguard or preserve). If you are happy with the (relatively)  stable situation you are in, is it safe to do nothing or do you need to take steps to make sure it stays that way (by anticipating what could change the situation in a direction you do not want to go in and ‘heading them off at the pass’)? If you are not happy with a (relatively) stable situation, what can you do to change it? What steps can you take? Who do you need to enlist to support you?

Similarly, if you are happy with the changes you are going through, is there anything you need to do to keep those changes on track and to get maximum benefit from them? And, if you are not happy with changes you are going through, what can you do to either prevent the changes or lessen the impact?

The key to this is what the textbooks call ‘self-efficacy’. It relates to how good (or not so good) we are at managing our lives and achieving what we need to. One of the major obstacles to self-efficacy is underestimating how much control we have over certain circumstances. Of course, there are many things we have no control over and a lot more that we can control only to a limited extent, but that should not prevent us from realising just how much we do have control over. The framework I have presented here can be summarised as:

  • if you are happy with the degree of stability you have, safeguard it; if you aren’t, make some changes.
  • If you are happy with the degree of change, keep any such changes on track. If you aren’t, do what you can to ameliorate the situation.

The framework is not a panacea, but it is a useful tool for working towards a helpful balance between stability and change.

Do a hassle audit

What I mean by hassle is anything that causes annoyance, slows us down or in any way reduces our quality of life. And, by an audit, I mean a means of weighing up the hassles we face, considering the impact they have on us and trying to do something about them. I am not proposing any sort of formal measurement system, just a listing of those things that give you hassle, a consideration of how significant each of these is and then some thought given to what, if anything, you can do about them.

My career has involved me in helping people address problems and concerns that they are up against. This has often led to situations in which people describe to me what ails them and what is bothering them, and I respond by saying words to the effect of: ‘So, what are you going to do about it?’. The reactions to that question can be very interesting. Often it would be a look of surprise, as if to say: ‘Why didn’t I think of that? – as if it had not occurred to them that there might be a solution to their problem. This would usually be from people who are so bogged down in their problems that they have lost sight of any possible solutions; they survive by adapting to their circumstances, rather than trying to tackle them. Defeatism and cynicism can quickly set in when people are under a great deal of pressure, particularly if they had a generally negative outlook on life to begin with.

Another common reaction would be to simply say: ‘There’s nothing I can do’. When, in response to that, I would propose various steps they could potentially take, there was almost always a reason why they could not do any of them; each of them seemed to be more hassle than it was worth. This would then lead into a discussion about which hassles were worse and what could be done about each of them. In effect, it was a process of choosing your hassles – which are you prepared to put up with and which are you not (something we do very frequently, of course, even if we don’t realise that we are doing it). It comes back to the basic idea that there are always choices, and choices have consequences. A hassle audit can help to make any such choices informed choices.

But it isn’t just problems that can benefit from a hassle audit. Sometimes we can be enthused about a particular project or opportunity and sign ourselves up for it without considering the downside, the actual or potential hassles involved. Is what you are hoping or trying to do worth the hassles involved? It is so very easy for the excitement in some situations to blinker us to the hassle costs involved. So, before you let your enthusiasm get the better of you, think through what hassles you might be letting yourself in for. Of course, there will be many times when the benefits outweigh even a whole host of hassles, but it is better if we are aware of what we are letting ourselves in for, as it is certainly not the case that positives will outweigh the negatives.

Life is not, of course, a hassle-free zone and never will be, but, with a thoughtful approach to hassles, we are better equipped to keep them to a minimum.

Don’t confuse experience with learning

It is commonly assumed that the more experience a person has, the more learning they will have done, and thus the more they will have to offer, but it’s important to realise that this is a very unsafe assumption to make. We don’t have to go far generally to come across someone who has a lot of experience, but has learned relatively little from it. There can be people with three years’ experience in a particular field who have done an excellent job of drawing out the lessons from that learning, of really making that experience count in terms of improving their practice and developing their confidence. But, there can also be people with thirty years’ experience who have done very little learning during that time. The technical term for this is ‘plateauing’ – that is, climbing to begin with, but then levelling off and not getting any higher (in terms of knowledge, skills and effectiveness).

‘Experience is the best teacher’ is a saying that we used to hear a lot at one time, despite the fact that it isn’t true. It is what we do with experience that is the best teacher. Just having an experience will teach us nothing, of course. We have to draw out the learning from that experience for it to really make a difference to us. We should not confuse experience (which provides the raw materials for learning) with actual learning, just as the ingredients of a cake are not the cake – it’s what you do with the ingredients that produces the cake. This is why learning support processes like supervision, mentoring and coaching can be so invaluable, because they can play a very helpful role in ‘processing’ experience, making sense of it in ways that enable us to learn and develop.

What is also important about this is that it helps us to understand the importance of an active approach towards learning. To get the most out of the learning opportunities life presents to us (whether in our working lives or our private lives), we need to play an active role, we need to make things happen. Unfortunately, the way our education system works, the opposite is often what is encouraged – a passive approach where other people take charge of our learning (teachers, trainers, tutors and so on) and we tend to go along with what they decide, what they organise, what they prioritise and so on. But, we are increasingly recognising that the people who are most successful in converting their experience into learning are the ones who adopt an active approach to their own learning needs (‘self-directed learning’, to use the technical term).

Sadly, having lots of experience, but not having learned much from it can actually be counterproductive – that is, we are not only missing out on learning, but the boredom and lack of stimulation in experiences that are not producing learning can numb our senses, reduce motivation and job satisfaction, discourage creativity and contribute to burnout. Consequently, a lot of workplace problems (and, indeed, potentially in our personal lives) can boil down to experience without learning, without the stimulation, reward, motivation and progress that learning can bring.

A lot of basic learning happens spontaneously (young children learning how to walk, for example), but the more advanced and complex the learning, the more we need to make the effort to bring it about, rather than make the mistake of just assuming that experience will automatically produce learning. Each day, week, month or year of experience will no doubt make us older, but it will not necessarily make us wiser.

Don’t fear change

For as long as I can remember, people have been saying that there is so much change <em>these days</em>, but ‘these days’ of change have been going on for a long time now for them to be seen as something new. Perhaps a better way to look at it is to acknowledge that there has always been a lot of change, but when we look back over earlier days, it is often the things that stayed constant that we now remember most. And there always will be much that stay constant. You will often hear people say that ‘change is the only constant’, but that simply isn’t true. Think about your own life now. For every thing that is in the process of change, there is much, much more that is staying the same (for now). Our attention in the present is drawn to what is changing (understandably so, because change presents elements of both threat and opportunity), and we tend to lose sight of what is staying the same. But, when we look back over the past, it is often what persisted over time that is to the fore, thereby giving us a slightly distorted picture of the role of change and constancy.

The more complex reality, of course, is that, wherever we look – past, present or future, there will be elements of change and elements of constancy, and the two will be interacting in complex ways. For a long time now there has been a tendency to adopt an oversimplified view of change and not see the fuller picture.

Eastern philosophy can help us make better sense of change, especially in terms of the concept of ‘impermanence’ which refers to the idea that we should not assume everything will stay the same – we should be more tuned in to the fact that change is part and parcel of being alive. If we adopt the expectation that everything should remain constant, then we will be disappointed and possibly even fearful when things do change. This can then create a sense that change is some sort of enemy.

I am certainly not suggesting that we should go to the opposite extreme and adopt the position of some in the management field who seem to think that change is by definition a good thing and something to be promoted uncritically. I remember running a leadership course once from which one of the participants benefited very little. This was because he arrived with the idea that leadership is basically about change management, and he left with exactly the same idea, having filtered out everything I and the other participants said to the contrary over the two days.

Change can be positive, but it can also be negative, catastrophic even, and so we are right to be wary of change. This brings us back to the idea of realism. Optimists like to focus on the positives and are thus likely to see change in positive terms. Pessimists tend to focus on the negatives, and are thus likely to see change in terms of threat. Realists are the people who acknowledge both, who are realistic about the positive potential of change, but are also tuned in to the negative potential too – not fearful, but alert to the possibilities, and thus better placed to take advantage of any opportunities presented by change, but also to guard against any harm that change may bring.

So, when the question of change comes up, beware the danger of oversimplifying it and recognise that approaching it in a spirit of realism will work much better than automatically fearing it or uncritically embracing it.

Make your feelings known

A much-used literary and dramatic device is for it to be apparent to the reader or viewer that someone has strong feelings (of love, for example), but is not expressing them and is losing out in some way as a consequence. As the plot develops, the feelings eventually become known and they all live happily ever after, or not, as the case may be.

But, outside of the world of fiction and drama, the question of when and how to express feelings is a significant one. Some people can go to the other extreme and blurt out their feelings inappropriately, leading to embarrassment for themselves and others. So, the two extremes of ‘Keep your feelings to yourself’ and ‘If you feel, it say it’ are not helpful.

This is where the idea of emotional intelligence comes in, having the ability to ‘read’ situations in such a way as to be able to work out when it is appropriate and helpful to make our feelings known and to be clear about what is the best way of expressing them in those particular circumstances. For example, when we are feeling anger, letting it gush out in a rage is rarely going to be helpful and could cause significant problems. But, this does not mean we need to keep it to ourselves. It may be more helpful to allow the situation to calm down and then say something like: ‘I start to feel angry when X happens’ (with X being whatever was provoking the anger). It can then be followed up by a constructive suggestion, such as: ‘So, it would be helpful if you did not …’, or whatever it takes to move the situation forward positively. How can we realistically expect to improve the situation if the people who are angering us are not made aware (in a non-threatening, constructive way) that they are doing so?

But it is not just negative feelings that are better out than in. Many people seem to find it extremely difficult to tell their loved ones that they love and appreciate them. Perhaps they make the mistake of assuming that they know and it therefore does not need saying. However, whatever is causing it, what is highly likely is that it is causing difficulties in a high proportion of cases. In both my personal and professional lives I have come across numerous examples of relationships that started to falter because feelings of love were not expressed; they were taken for granted and therefore not reinforced or revitalised when they needed to be.

Being human is full of paradoxes, and one of them is that we are both robust and fragile at the same time. Expressing our feelings and receiving reassurance, validation and affirmation can make a huge positive difference, while finding ourselves in emotionally barren and unsupportive territory can undermine our confidence and well-being. There is therefore much to be said for making our feelings known, provided that we are tuned in to how to do so in helpful ways.

Another paradox is that we are both rational and emotional beings. While many people focus on the rational side and play down the emotional elements of being human, it does not alter the fact that feelings are a very powerful influence on our behaviour, our thoughts and how we relate to one another. If we neglect the emotional dimension and see feelings as things to be kept under wraps for the most part, we are doing ourselves a disservice and working on the basis of a very limited understanding of what it means to be human.

Define your own rules of success

In the days before we had rules, the strong and powerful could do what they wished and the not so strong and not so powerful could do little about it. This left little scope for fairness, equality, dignity and other such key values. While some people rail against rules and see them as an unnecessary restriction on human freedom, a civilised social order would not be possible without some set of rules that the vast majority of people are prepared to abide by.

In a democratic society, the rules are based largely on the law and the legal system surrounding it, with official sanctions in place for those who transgress those rules. So, while such rules can be a problem at times, they are basically a good thing and an important ‘glue’ for binding society together.

Those are the ‘official’ rules, but there are also all sorts of unofficial rules that derive from cultural norms – sets of expectations that can bring sanctions if they are not abided by (social disapproval, laughter or even ridicule and so on). Despite being unofficial and not rooted in any formal body of law, these rules can still be very powerful influences on not only our behaviour, but also our thoughts and feelings.

For example, these rules can play a part in defining success. For a significant proportion of people success in life means material wealth – property ownership, money in the bank, and so on. This can be linked to success in the form of fame and celebrity status, even though most people will not achieve this. However, these definitions of success will often be a source of misery for many people – for those who feel a failure because they cannot achieve what their culture is telling them they should aim for, but also for those who do achieve these goals, but feel empty and unfulfilled once they do so. Monetary success is no guarantee of happiness. Material wealth is very different from spiritual wealth. The former does not guarantee the latter.

Focusing on material wealth as a means of defining success in life is likely to close off other opportunities for achieving different types of success. It is therefore important to have our own definition of success and not just adopt the dominant cultural norms. Being a passive victim of other people’s expectations is not a helpful or positive position to be in. We can achieve much more than this if we find the strength and courage to think for ourselves.

Imagine yourself in the latter stages of your life looking back over what you have achieved. What is it that is likely to matter most to you then? Will it be having been a decent, kind and considerate human being? An effective parent? A positive contributor to other people’s well-being? Or perhaps just to have survived the difficult circumstances that you have found yourself in?

There is no right answer to these questions. They are just ‘triggers’ to get you thinking about what the important things in your life are and thereby giving you a sense of perspective and focus, something to guide you in the important choices you make in life.

It can also be important to think about how what matters to you fits with what matters to the people who are an important part of your life. How can you be supportive of one another in finding definitions of success that work for you and for them?

So, in a nutshell, don’t be constrained by other people’s definitions of success. Decide for yourself what you want out of life and don’t let other people decide for you or stand in your way just because their idea of success differs from yours. After all, it’s your life, not theirs.