When things tend to go wrong in organizations, leadership is more likely to treat the symptoms instead of address the root cause. Although there are many possible reasons for this, the bottom line is that the problem will only be solved temporarily. Until you address the root cause, symptoms will continue to surface.

What Is A Root Cause?

The root cause is an underlying issue that can be difficult to detect but tends to cause multiple symptoms. Root causes can be harder to detect because there are seldom simple, linear answers that point to them. Discovering root causes typically requires people taking time to ask questions, research the issue, and take some time to figure out. By contrast, symptoms are simpler, easier to treat, and don’t require much time or effort. Let’s look at some common symptoms and, in my experience, how they are often addressed:

  • Tardiness is increasing, so leadership issue more reprimands and punishments
  • An employee is labeled as “difficult” because they speak up a lot, so people start to shun that person
  • Bullying is on the rise, so management implements a “zero tolerance” policy
  • Productivity is declining, so the company requires everyone to put in more hours
  • Competition is heating up amongst employees, so the executive team scolds them and reminds them of the organization’s values

Unfortunately, when people treat the symptoms using the behaviors, the problem only gets worse and creates more problems. Therefore, it’s crucial to address and fix the root cause if you want the problem to go away.

How to Analyze Root Causes

What is often perceived as the problem in organizations is often symptomatic of the larger system. Therefore, we have to look at the bigger picture to find answers. Here are three key elements that often prevent organizations from getting to the root cause (and how to address them):

  1. Not Taking Time to Find Root Causes. In our preference for quick fixes, most people don’t want to make time to look for answers. As I mentioned, finding root causes can take time and effort. Therefore, you have to be committed to making time to find them.
  2. Focusing on Short-Term Gain. As our culture leans more and more towards instant gratification, we tend to focus on the short-term. We look for what is easy, comfortable, and requires the least amount of effort. Unfortunately, short-term gain often leads to long-term pain. The famous Marshmallow Experiment is one example of this. Instead, we need to flip the script and be willing to face short-term pain in favor of long-term gain. This requires us being willing to be uncomfortable, face facts brutally, and sometimes wade through the muck to find the gold.
  3. Not Wanting to Change. As we all know, change can be stressful, uncomfortable, and unpredictable. Addressing root causes inevitably means having to change something, usually starting with our own behavior. Conversely, treating symptoms requires someone else to have to change. Notice in the above examples how the change is directed towards someone else, not the organization as a whole. Fixing most root causes requires everyone having to change. This starts with looking at your role in the issue and how you might be contributing.

If you’re willing to address these three elements, you’re already ahead of the pack. If you want to go deeper, check out this article for some practical tips on root cause analysis.

Examples of Fixing Root Causes

Now that we’ve looked at some ways to discover root causes, let’s look at some common real-life underlying causes for our previous examples and how they were fixed:

  • Tardiness was the result of management not holding people accountable due to fear of conflict. Employees started to recognize this and took advantage. When management started restating expectations, got more skilled at handling conflict, and enforcing existing policies, the problem turned around.
  • The “difficult” employee was the only one willing to say the things that were on people’s minds but that they were afraid to say. They didn’t want to rock the boat and be seen as a target. When they confronted their fear of being visible, stopped to listen to the employee, and joined forces, they were able to convince leadership to look at some serious issues that needed attention.
  • The bullying started at the top and was being modeled throughout the organization. Work became a matter of survival of the fittest. Instead of pointing the finger, leadership had to take a long, hard look in the mirror at their own behavior and make some changes. When they publicly took ownership of their behavior and offered support, people felt safe enough to be vulnerable again and started coming together.
  • Productivity was declining because of a lack of faith in leadership. Nepotism was increasing, there were some shady behaviors going on behind the scenes, and racial and gender biases were rampant. These behaviors ran counter to the organization’s stated values, and everyone was fed up. Although the pain got to the point where senior management had to face facts, they never fully owned up to them. Things changed a little to the degree that leadership was willing to do so, but there were even deeper root causes that were never fleshed out (such as corruption, denial, and abuse of power, among other things).
  • Competition heated up because resources became more limited and people had to fight for them. Teams needed to work together to succeed but instead, the teams who came out ahead were rewarded and those who didn’t were grilled and chewed out. Leadership was unaware of how they were reinforcing the behavior, even as it ran counter to their stated values. When they became congruent and started rewarding collaboration instead of competition, teams started working together and everyone experienced greater success.

Now that you have a sense of how symptoms can point to root causes, take a look at some symptoms in your own organization and see what the root causes might be. Better yet, share some examples from your organization below!