07 July 2007

Contribution to Problems

Root cause analysis is an important tool for any engineer. It is about getting past the surface of things and finding what really happened to cause something to not work. People often thing of it as continually asking "Why?" until there is no more answer to that question.

Root cause analysis is also important in relationships, although it often does not happen. The book Difficult Conversations has a really good example. A man is preparing for a business trip. His assistant is putting together materials for him. She gives him the wrong materials and he botches the presentation. On the surface it seems clear cut. She gave him the wrong stuff. Her fault.

Digging deeper into the example, we find that she did not seek clarification, because he would tend to get angry and abusive when she asked questions. This doesn't make it his fault, but it is clear that he contributes to the lack of clarification by his responses to her questions.

You can argue that the assistant should have simply ignored the abuse and done her job, but remember, we are all human. nobody likes to get yelled at by their boss. She went through a process where she weighed the certainty of getting yelled at against the probability that she misunderstood the instructions. She was willing to take the risk. It is simply a marginal utility function.

This kind of dynamic plays out in relationships as well. Suppose a wife goes to her husband and tells her that she is not happy in their marriage. He gets defensive/abusive saying, "What's wrong with you? I make good money, we have a nice house, cars, and we go on a European vacation every year." She begins to think that she is defective, so she takes refuge in a bottle.

You might say that the problem is that she's an alcoholic. Maybe she is. She apparently does not have good skills to deal with abuse, so she medicates with alcohol. But alcoholism is not the only problem.

There are other core problems in the marriage. He has a tendency to be abusive. He is not the kind and understanding person that he was when they were dating. Perhaps he stopped buying her gifts once they got married. Or stopped complimenting her. Perhaps she put on a few pounds after the baby and he has contempt for her, thinking that if she would just drink less she would lose weight.

Now, because she's a "drunk," he treats her worse. So she drinks more. Negative feedback loops are a common pattern in addiction. One person needs to break the cycle, but both people need help. They have both contributed to the problem.

Some types of behaviors and attitudes that can indicate contribution are as follow:
High expectations, low expectations, preconceived bias against the other person, misinterpret something they have said or done and not to check out your perception, expect/demand the other person to change first (this is a blaming behavior), expect/demand your own way, silent treatment or some other way of withholding from the other person, misleading the other person (deliberately or not) as to your intentions or abilities.

Edit 8/29/2007

Isn't This a Blame-The Victim Mentality?
It can appear that way. It's subtle, but the intent is important. Consider a case where you are in an unfamiliar city late at night walking alone down a dark street. You get mugged.

You are not to blame for being mugged! Our society will punish the mugger if he is caught. What is the contribution then? Well you didn't make him mug you, but you helped to set up the situation in which he could. You're not to blame. But can you learn something? Might you do something different next time?

If you accept no contribution to the problem, you might say something like, "Well it was all him. He had no right to mug me." Then go out for a walk alone in the same area the next night. That's probably a losing strategy.

Accepting your contribution does not mean accepting blame. It would mean, in this case, recognizing that walking alone in an unfamiliar city can be dangerous, then learning from that by taking measures to not expose yourself. Perhaps you could walk with a friend or at least ask the concierge what a safe part of town would be.

In a sense, understanding contribution can be thought of as a continual improvement process. Finger pointing and apportionment of blame, in most cases, do not cause learning. Understanding most situations as part of a system can help facilitate that.

On to H.A.L.T. >>>>>

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