‘The reason I’m overweight is because I’m heavier than I should be.’ ‘The reason it’s pitch dark in here is because there is no light on.’ ‘The reason my laptop isn’t working is because it’s broken.’ What’s wrong with these statements? On the face of it, they have a ring of truth about them, a sense of plausibility. However, they’re all illustrations of circular reasoning or, if you like, of stating two things that are essentially descriptions of the same phenomenon - yet asserting a causal relationship between them. In each case, it’s as if one thing is sufficient to explain the other.
There are at least 3 problems with this kind of reasoning. Firstly, it is erroneous thinking, a distortion of truth. Secondly, we can use it as a rationalisation to ourselves and to others for issues we don’t want to face, want to avoid or are unwilling to take responsibility for. ‘I do this…or I can’t do that…because…’ Thirdly, it can trap us in its own logic – or at least in its apparent logic. If there’s a reason why I am doing or not doing X, a feasible explanation for what is causing me to do it or not do it, it can appear to lay beyond my ability to change. It’s as if I have no options or alternatives.
Now apply this insight to organisational life: ‘The reason we have low levels of engagement at the moment is that staff are unmotivated and uncommitted.’ ‘Our profits are higher than usual because we made better net financial gains this time than in previous quarters.’ ‘X is underperforming because he’s not doing his job well.’ Jim Collins talks about facing the brutal facts. As leaders, OD and coaches, we can look out for examples of circles in our own language and that of others. We can hold up a proverbial mirror, raise awareness and be willing to face, challenge and reframe it.
And remember: if you don’t agree with me on this point, it’s because you disagree.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.