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27 June 2019

Challenging cause-and-effect compulsion

Written by
John Sautelle

Many leaders, and the coaches who support them, are unconsciously compelled to make sense of the world through cause-and-affect stories, limiting their ability to navigate complexity.

The Compulsion

What if your problem is falling sales? One obvious solution is to head hunt star performers from a successful competitor. After all, the competitor’s success must largely be due to their star performers. Right?

“One of the great achievements of humans is that we understand cause-and-effect relationships; but we overuse that skill by creating fairly simple connections between cause and effect and then believing in those connections.” Jennifer Garvey-Berger from her latest book, Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps.

When faced with complex challenges, where there is no simple method for understanding the whole by studying the parts, searching for simple causes for system-level effects is impossible. Basing future actions on the simple stories we retrospectively create about cause and effect is a recipe for unintended consequences, often unpleasant ones.

When a company is facing falling sales one obvious and common solution is to head hunt star performers from a successful competitor – assuming the competitor’s success must largely be due to their star performers.

In an in-depth study of 1,052 star stock analysts who worked for 78 investment banks in the United States from 1988 through 1996, three Harvard professors concluded:

“When a company hires a star, the star’s performance plunges, there is a sharp decline in the functioning of the group or team the person works with, and the company’s market value falls.”

Organisations are complex human ecosystems, and the performance of any one individual is only explainable, to the extent that is even possible, in the context of that ecosystem. Making a direct causal link between individual effort and performance outcomes relieves the itch for a simple cause and effect story and this story unravels when the same individual moves to a different organisational ecosystem.

As humans, and leaders, our quest to predict and control the future to ensure we survive compels us to look at the world through cause-and-effect lenses. As humans we are neuro-biologically organised to answer the question: “Is this something to move towards that supports life, or something to move against or away from to stay safe?”

We respond to this question through privileging our brain, mind and will-power – particularly those of us in Western cultures. Descartes’ causal story “Cogito, ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am”is no longer fit-for-purpose for leaders confronted by complex challenges. A new story, “I am, and thinking is part of my knowing” opens up possibilities to access an intelligence which is distributed throughout our body, our “embodied” intelligence and is one way to release us from our mind’s compulsive causality search.

Accessing our embodied intelligence

In Your Body is Your Brain Amanda Blake draws extensively on contemporary neuroscience to provide a comprehensive and compelling description of embodied intelligence and how to access it. She points out: “We tend to think of the brain as a top-down command center, but this is about as outdated as thinking the world is flat. The brain in your head receives vastly more “bottom-up” input from your visceral organs than the reverse. In fact, in many instances it makes more sense to say the body leads the brain.”

Did you know…

  • For every signal sent from your brain to your gut, many more signals are sent in the other direction. The enteric nervous system in our gut is like a mini-brain and is the only known part of the nervous system that can override messages from the brain. Your gut also produces 95 percent of your body’s serotonin, a vital mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter.
  • A small group of cells in the amygdala—a tiny bit of brain involved in assessing danger—fires six to eight milliseconds after each heartbeat. The implication: when there’s something to be scared of, your rapidly beating heart lets your brain know.
  • Distributed intelligence is found in your lungs, vagal nervous system, skin and all of your body’s connective tissues.

Mandy’s book provides rich case studies and offers detailed practices to support you to “discover your own biobehavioural blind spots, train to embody greater social and emotional intelligence, and learn how to exercise embodied mindfulness while interacting with others.” Directly, and indirectly, these practices help us break our cause-and-effect habit.

I believe that in addition to accessing our individual ‘embodied intelligence’,

the new body of knowledge and practice, systemic constellations, offers access to the collective ‘knowing’ that could release us even further from our causality compulsion and provide us with new ways of understanding and navigating complex systems.

If you are new to systemic constellations, be prepared for your logical mind to be confronted as we briefly venture into that field.

Systemic Intelligence

On the 8thNovember 1942 my grandmother, Fanny Sautelle, had a dream in which she saw a Wellington bomber go down in flames over France. She reported to family members that her son Peter, a rear-gunner in the Australian Airforce, had been shot down and killed. Nearly two weeks later she received a telegram confirming what she already knew.

Most likely you will have had a direct experience of sensing something energetically that can’t currently be measured – for example sensing when someone is observing you before you see them. Then there are experiences like those of my grandmother, and common to many parents, of having a “sixth sense” that something has happened to their child before finding out that is indeed the case.

In the well-established field of family systems work, there are governing principles that determine whether a family system is functioning in a healthy way. Increasingly some of these principles are informing new ways of mapping and improving organisational systems which are, by their very nature, complex.

Through a physical mapping process, called a “constellation”, the healthy and unhealthy relationship dynamics in teams and larger organisational groups can be identified and worked on to bring about a healthier system. Central to this work is our ability to access intelligence from the system through a way of knowing, often called “embodied sensing”, which I believe has parallels with how my grandmother became aware of my uncle’s death. Notwithstanding our technological limitations in measuring precisely how this way of knowing occurs, there is a wealth of first hand personal experience which validates this phenomenon.

The systemic constellations mapping process has been successfully applied to many organisational challenges including those related to culture, structure, strategy, morale, conflict and decision making. The process is particularly powerful as it helps us see, and feel, patterns of relationship dynamics which are hidden from us when we are in the grip of causation compulsion.

If you are interested in learning how embodied and systemic intelligence can enhance your ways of knowing, support your development, release you from cause-and-effect compulsion and increase your capacity to lead and support leaders in complexity, we encourage you to join one of our 3 day retreat workshops.

6 thoughts on “Challenging cause-and-effect compulsion”

  1. Kerim says:

    Hey, John.
    Love this article and the way you integrate stories, science and new embodied work all into a great weave.

    1. John Sautelle says:

      Thanks Kerim. Much appreciated.

  2. Anne Edwards says:

    Hi John,

    As usual, your engaging writing style kept me
    reading till the end – there is so much underlying
    passion in your quest to foster better, more
    fruitful relationships between people.


    1. John Sautelle says:

      Thanks Anne 🙂

  3. Chris Corrigan says:

    During the late 1990s many investors saw the high growth of tech stocks and immediately invested in the market. They believed that future performance would reflect past results. They lost billions.

    My point is that people often use unreferenced generalizations of indigenous people to illustrate naive behaviour. Please don’t do that. It is unnecessary, unethical, and it unfairly promotes stereotypes.

    1. John Sautelle says:

      Hi Chis. I have been offline for the past days due to an unexpected family commitment and just caught up with your post. First, thanks for taking the time to respond. The point you make about the 1990s stock market resonates for me as it reflects my intention in writing the blog in the first place – which was to highlight the extent we are all subject to this cause-effect phenomenon. In choosing the cargo plane example I certainly did not intend to link indigenous people with naive behaviour. A core part of my work and life journey, reflected in my book and my TEDx talk “Whose stories are we living”, has involved surfacing and rewriting inherited stories about rqce, gender and sexuality – including powerful sterotypical stories about Indigenous Australians. Notwithstanding this, I am open to the possibility that choice could reflect an unconscious legacy bias of those inherited stories – something I will reflect further on. If you are open to viewing my TEDx talk I would welcome an ongoing dialogue. Warm regards. John

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