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3 Powerful Root Causes And Remedies For Systemic Flaws

March 28, 2024

Blog Topic
meeting systemic flaws

First published on Forbes

Sakichi Toyoda created the “Five Whys” (5Ys) as a method for identifying root causes of errors or problems way back in the early years of Toyota. He claimed that by asking “why?” five times, one could find both a problem’s cause and its solution.

But over my 40 years of service and leadership in the military, law enforcement and commercial arenas, I’ve found another, more humanistic approach that gets to the human root causes and remedies.

From 5 Whys To 3 Human Reasons

The 5Ys can take us to human and systemic flaws and their solutions. However, humans created those systems, and we need to discover the human causes of systemic flaws; otherwise, we risk treating systemic symptoms, not root causes. Especially in the realm of leadership and personal development, understanding the root causes of human error, misunderstanding and conflict is pivotal.

It’s my strong belief that human error, misunderstanding and conflict all stem from one or more of three core issues—fear, habits and ignorance. I know this is a bold assertion, yet it’s grounded in a truth you can assess for yourself by contemplating your own experiences. These three elements not only fuel individual setbacks but also sow the seeds of systemic errors, which are human-designed.

Recognizing these causes is only half the battle; the path to overcoming them lies in cultivating courage, better practices and continuous learning, which are the remedies.

  1. Fear: The Root Of Resistance
    Cause: Fear is a primal emotion, essential for survival, yet often it morphs into a barrier to growth. In the workplace, fear manifests as resistance to change, fear of failure or apprehension about stepping out of comfort zones.

A classic example is the common reluctance by leaders at all levels to conduct those difficult conversations that “nip” unacceptable behavior or performance in the “bud.” The fear of failure, or exacerbating the problem, means that the problem persists or worsens. An element of ignorance can appear here as well.

Remedy: The antidote to fear is courage. Courage does not mean the absence of fear but the determination to move forward despite it.

Our courage comes from our values and our competence (experience and training). When working with someone who’s afraid of conducting a difficult conversation, I coach them to remember which of their values are being breached by avoiding the conversation; I also remind them that they can prepare and even rehearse the difficult conversation and that the leadership example they will set by having that conversation can be a powerful aid to improving the workplace culture.

  1. Habits: The Chains Of Comfort
    Cause: We humans are creatures of habit. And while sometimes beneficial, habits can also be detrimental, especially when they become comfort zones from which escape seems daunting. In many organizations, “We’ve always done it this way” is a mantra that stifles innovation and adaptation.

For instance, the dreaded annual performance review is a habit I challenge regularly. Mandated with good intent, the annual performance review is generally unpopular with both managers and recipients. It is almost useless in achieving performance improvement or mastery, as it allows bad habits to form between reviews.

Remedy: All habits, both beneficial and unhelpful, are created by practice. Therefore, better practices are the natural counter to unhelpful habits. Better structured regular engagement between leader and team member will alleviate the need for the annual review, be less stressful for all concerned and deliver better outcomes because performance issues are dealt with earlier.

  1. Ignorance: The Barrier To Brilliance
    Cause: Ignorance, or the lack of knowledge, underpins many misunderstandings and conflicts. In a globalized world, ignorance about other cultures can lead to misinterpretation of intentions and actions. A business expanding into a new country may inadvertently offend local customs and practices due to ignorance, leading to conflict and misunderstanding.

Also, referring to our earlier example of avoiding difficult conversations, not knowing how to conduct the conversation can be as common as the fear of it.

Remedy: Continuous learning is the powerful remedy to ignorance. By ensuring that their corporate culture values learning and curiosity, organizational leaders can bridge cultural divides and enhance understanding. I recommend implementing cultural competence training for employees in multinational corporations, which helps in recognizing and respecting cultural differences, thereby reducing conflicts and enhancing collaboration.

Even for smaller businesses, focusing on continuous learning helps leaders encourage those vital yet challenging human skills that are too often devalued in training that focuses on technical skills and processes. I focus my clients on the very core of what makes their business brilliant: learning to master their attitudes, behaviors and conversations.

In Conclusion

I recommend that leaders practice observing and discovering these root causes by engaging directly with their people in a constructive, non-blaming, facilitative and coaching way. This will enable them to discover root causes and to apply the remedies in a timely and caring manner. Not only will these challenges be resolved, but leaders will earn trust and gain superior results as well.

An additional benefit will be that organizations, realizing that blame resolves nothing, will become more self- and situationally aware, adaptable and resilient. Those leaders will create an environment where people can become the best versions of themselves. That will be their competitive advantage.

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