- Leandro Herrero - https://leandroherrero.com -

What psychoanalysis taught me about root causes: the comfort of finding them is not matched by the quality of their truth

The degree of comfort in discovering the roots of things, cannot be taken as proof of the truth. The best we can do, and must do, is to exercise critical thinking and mental rigour, to get as close as possible to what may look like ‘the causes’. Finding culprits is easy. It is more complicated to prove that they are solely responsible for the situation.

‘Root Cause Analysis’  is common in manufacturing processes where some disciplines in this area has been established for a long time. It’s also very present in Health and Safety systems. It is far less explicit in other managerial processes in organizations, where you sometimes have the impression that people are ‘playing the music’ without being very serious in the search for ‘causes’, most likely to be the causes of a failure.

I go back all the time to the need for ‘critical thinking’. And this is a discipline, a kind of mental gym, in great part trying to avoid our mental traps. The mind tricks us all the time, and is particularly good at providing comfort. It makes it easy to rationalise and justify our decisions. As an example, it tries to avoid ‘cognitive dissonance’: ‘I missed the train, I’ll be late to the concert, never mind, the first part was not that important’. Which is far more palatable than ‘What a shame, I missed the train, how stupid, I did not get the full concert’.

Most critical thinking looks like simple A,B,C on paper, but is consistently practised badly. The most obvious example is the constant mistake of mixing up causes and correlations. In Root Cause Analysis, when exercised by not very disciplined people, I have seen many times how easy it is to find correlations and then give up on rigorous thinking, soon ending in ‘having found the cause or causes’. Comfort is high, the truth slim.

Psychoanalysis is very good at digging into childhood to find ‘the causes’ of adult problems. And causes were found, indeed. Comfort was provided to some extent, because ‘having an explanation’ is in itself a good anxiolytic, regardless of whether the explanation is solid or not. Solidity in psychoanalysis was high in its internal consistency (the system of psychoanalytic thinking was once described as one of those worms that one can cut in pieces and the pieces will still move) but not in its validity.  In fact, psychoanalysis was born out of Freud’s first thought, that bringing unconscious problems to life (conscious) would be enough to produce ‘the cure’. It was not. It did not work with far more complicated situations, which at that time were called ‘neurosis, a term now buried by modern Psychiatry.  The digging into the past via dreams and the entire psychoanalytic approach was then born. That new ‘psychoanalytic method’  was the result of the need to create a more sophisticated system of cure. And still didn’t cure much, but this is a story for another day.

Digging, collecting data, finding causes, is necessary. It must be applied in management. It should be a standard reflection for leadership. But one has to remain restless in front of ‘obvious causes’ and always bring a healthy critical approach. Comfort is easy; the truth is slightly more complicated.