Symptoms Versus Causes

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: In the topic “Change (Real Change) Begins With Individuals,” what appears to be the problem is not the problem—you could say it was merely the symptom of a much deeper problem. Is this typical in the business world? Did you find that a lot in your work, that people took symptoms at face value and treated them as problems?

JM: Yes. Most people in organizations, maybe in life, just focus on the symptoms. They don’t really search for the cause.

BW: And this was a common problem in your work.

JM: Very common. Most people in organizations just react to the symptoms, and often it’s because they just don’t know better—they’re not trained to search for causes. Our culture seems to be more focused on eliminating symptoms rather than healing root causes. Ultimately, that became a big part of my job—helping the presidents and executives learn that most of the things they were dealing with were symptoms and to help them learn how to ferret out the underlying cause. Because unless you find out what is causing the problem, you can’t ultimately get rid of the symptoms.

BW: So, in general, people were reacting to the symptoms and adding to the problems?

JM: Yes. Often they just react. So when they react, constantly, day in and day out, like we talked about in “No Concept of Priorities,” they’re just adding to the problems and symptoms.

BW: When describing your work, you use the term “ferreting out” a lot. This seemed to be the major focus of your work—ferreting out the underlying cause.

JM: Or causes.

BW: Conflict seems to come up often in organizations. Did you find that conflict and the demand for conflict resolution was the most common symptom of underlying issues?

JM: Yes, that’s true, but the surface of it actually varied in every situation. Let’s see... Surprisingly, it was often just presented as a goal that didn’t appear to be any problem at all. What is typical, is where they’ll say something like, “Well, I’ve got a goal here that I’m trying to get the sales department to increase sales from 20 million to 25 million.” So I use that as a starting point. But I know from experience that there’s usually a lot more going on. But I never say that at the outset. I go along with it and start the process of inquiry. I take what they think is the goal or a problem, which is really a symptom. I don’t say it’s a symptom. I don’t deride it. I say, “Well, okay, let’s take a look at it. Why don’t you describe to me what you’re trying to accomplish?” And I would switch from the word goal to accomplish or achieve. And he would say to me—and this is typical, because I’ve worked a lot in sales—“Julian, I just told you I want to increase sales from 20 million to 25 million.” And I would say, “I hear you well. Tell me what you’re doing to bring it about.” What I’m doing now is getting him to begin to talk about the situation. “Well, I have ten men on the sales staff, and I have a sales manager, I’ve met with them, I’ve given them pep talks, we have had trainers come in to teach technique, so I’m doing a lot of things to help them become better salesmen.” And then I ask, “Is it working?” “You know what Julian, it’s strange. I’ve been doing this for months and no matter what we do, it doesn’t seem to be increasing sales.” “Why do you think that is?” I ask. “I don’t know. I think that’s why I’ve got you here.” “Well, let’s take a look at the situation. Would you now tell me more about your sales manager, what he’s like? What’s his temperament? What are his skills? And describe the men in his department.” So he describes his sales manager, the whole situation. Always, my first step with the president is to get him to describe the situation or problem in detail. Full detail. The more he describes the situation or problem, the more he begins to see the magnitude of it. And so there comes a time when it’s possible for me to say, “Ok, I have a good picture of the people that are involved, their personalities, what they’re doing, what troubles they’re causing. And I also have a good picture of how you view it. Now let’s take a look at what you are doing to take care of that problem.” And invariably, the president would say, “I’m not doing anything.” And I would say, “Well, who do you think is going to solve the problem?” “Well, that’s up to the Vice President of Marketing or the Vice President of Sales.” And I would say, “Well, are they getting rid of the problem?” “No.” And then at some point, I might say, “Jim, it seems like the more you talk about your sales manager, the more you seem kind of angry.” “What do you mean I’m angry?” “Well, your voice was rising when you were talking about him.” “Well, to tell you the truth, I am angry.” “Well, tell me what you’re angry about with your sales manager.” So as we move along like this and he’s talking about the sales manager and his department, I then say, “When you were describing the ten men, you explained that three of the men are doing outstanding work, but seven aren’t. So why don’t you describe those seven men to me.” And then he says, “My God, Julian, I think I’m understanding what’s going on. I’m beginning to wonder if sales training is helping these guys.” So now I can say, “Let’s focus on what you might be able to do. Would you be interested in looking at possible steps to take with the sales manager and the men?” So by that time, which might be three hours later, he would usually say, “My God, yes.” And then I would say, “Well, Jim, what’s your goal now?” “Oh, I still want to increase sales to 25 million, but my more important and immediate goal is to improve my relationship with the sales manager and the performance of those seven men.” And I would say, “You want to accomplish things with your sales manager.” “Yes.” “It sounds like you want to accomplish things with those seven men.” “Yes.” “So now, it would be very important for me to help you get these people into your office and dig in deeper to find out what the problems are with the seven men.” So I’m not saying to him early on, that he’s part of the problem. Sometimes it takes months before that becomes clear. But eventually, if he’s interested in learning, he’ll come to the realization that these issues are just symptoms of underlying problems.

BW: And the realization has to come from within themselves. You can’t say to them directly...

JM: I can’t say it to them directly—they’ll throw me out.

BW: Right.

JM: You have to take them through a process. So they gain insights. My method of inquiry is opening things up bit by bit—I may talk to them, ask questions, explore for three hours with them—and then all of a sudden they see the people, the situation, the interaction, the problem, and I do too. And that’s when they turn to me and say, “Boy, thank you, you really described the problem for me.” And I would say, “Uh-huh, I’ve just been doing inquiry.” “Well, whatever you’re doing, I can see it. I can see now that I’m dealing with this or that. I see this, I can see that.” So the fact that I was situationally oriented, and because I would spend endless hours going through a process of inquiry with the president or an executive, getting them to talk about the situation more and more, until we began to have a picture of the reality of what was going on. Because most presidents and executives merely see the symptoms—they don’t see the real problem. And so what I’m realizing, as I sit here and reflect, is that by being situation oriented and inquiry oriented with the person, and really caring about the person, it’s the answer, it’s the magic for my whole process. That’s what’s really important—genuine concern for the person. I give him or her my full attention. If the person is open to learning and change, I am very eager to work with them, to help them. And that helps to get to the bottom of things. Does that make sense?

BW: Yes. And what was also unique about your approach was that you operated on the presumption that many problems actually started with management and worked their way down.

JM: Yeah, they do. And what they see lower down are symptoms. Not always, but often. That was a big part of my work, spending time with these people and helping them to realize that.

BW: And that was why your work was pioneering in relation to what was available at the time?

JM: Until then, if a company was having major problems in the organization, most consultants would come in and make a proposal and say, “We’ll bring in eight staff people and interview all of your employees. And we will draw up a summary of what we find out.” And so they would come in, interview everybody, come up with what are apparently the problems, I guess you’d call it, and in no case would they be working with the president and the executives. They would interview the people down in the organization and just treat the symptoms as problems.

BW: Your work must have taken a lot of patience and perseverance especially in the beginning because a lot of people who are in positions of power, they don’t want to admit they’re possibly creating or contributing to the problems they’re seeing. They want to think it’s all due to the people below them. It must have been challenging to get your career going in the beginning with this approach.

JM: My business grew primarily by word of mouth. With each success I was recommended to other presidents and companies. And yes, it did take a lot of work, patience, and perseverance, but it was worth it. As was clear from my work, when people faced their issues, this led to dramatic improvements in the external environment and the company fared better. So yes.

BW: So you helped to point out and make clear that external problems are often just symptoms rooted in inner causes.

JM: Although many people don’t want to see it that way. In a way, it’s a no-brainer, but people just prefer not to look at problems in that way. It’s easier to avoid, run away, rationalize, point fingers, blame, and judge rather than to look at oneself. It takes a lot of courage to look at oneself in the mirror, accept responsibility, and face problems.

BW: It helped that you were very kind and compassionate. And there is something comforting about your presence.

JM: Yes, I suppose my presence and process of inquiry helped, but ultimately it is up to the individual to be honest with himself or herself and examine himself or herself.

BW: Since you’ve made clear, issues rooted in individuals create problems in organizations, likewise I’m guessing there is that same connection to bigger scale problems.

JM: There’s always a connection between the internal and external. Small scale and large scale. Micro and macro, though many people often don’t want to connect the two. Here’s an example. If you take the Fortune magazine, you have the Fortune Five Hundred. They’re the five hundred top companies in the country. Well, keep your copy and in about four, five years, read the list of the five hundred companies that were considered tops and you’ll find that many of them are struggling or have disappeared.

BW: When you say disappeared, do you mean just off the list or they’ve gone bankrupt.

JM: They’ve disappeared. They’ve closed down or went bankrupt because they couldn’t make it. At least back when I was keeping track.

BW: Even though they were a Fortune Five Hundred company. What do you attribute the failures to?

JM: Well, as you can see there’s an instability. And there’s many, many things that would have something to do with it. But you have to consider inner causes. Complacency could be a big part of it. People reach a certain level and they become complacent. They feel entitled to be there. We talked about ego. Part of it is greed in terms of money, power, influence. And of course, there’s wrong values or a lack of values. Their rise could have been a result of short-term gain. We talked about the difference between short term gain and long term growth in the topic “Greed”. Unhealthy growth versus healthy growth. These days there’s an overwhelming emphasis on short-term gain versus long-term healthy growth. Get rich schemes have been around forever, but these days, we’ve been also corrupted by a blockbuster mentality—something isn’t a success unless it’s a blockbuster, an immediate and huge success. We just came out of the era of pump and dump, where the value of stocks was inflated and then the stocks were sold for a short term profit, but obviously this led to tremendous instability. People like to compartmentalize and claim business is just about making the most money in the least amount of time, the bottom line, and that morals and values are irrelevant, but the lack of values, the lack of just basic honesty has obviously created tremendous instability.

BW: And in the long run, it’s unsustainable. Sustainability is often thought of in environmental terms, but economic stability and sustainability is just as important. You could argue the two are linked, interconnected. Sustainability, in its most general terms, simply means the ability to maintain balance within a given system. Given this definition, in more ways than one, we are clearly out of balance.

JM: A lot of what are treated as isolated or separate problems such as waste, pollution, over consumption, are merely symptoms.

BW: Environmental degradation and economic instability, in many cases, are rooted in the same causes such as greed, corruption, ego, a lack of values, a disregard of responsibility and accountability, alongside ignorance.

JM: And don’t forget, the shadow side of the American Dream—massive, wasteful consumption, greed, a need to keep up with the Joneses or rather outdo the Joneses. We often float through life unconsciously driven by what is defined as the American Dream—we let the television and other media sources dictate almost in a hypnotic fashion what our decisions should be. Sadly, many people think that’s all there is to life, this is it, getting ahead. That this is the only goal of life.

BW: And all of this ultimately individual in origin. These are just symptoms coming from individuals. The outer instability is reflective of our inner instability.

JM: But as I said, many people don’t want to view problems in that way. It’s easier to polarize into a faction and blame others. People just want to get rid of the symptoms. Searching for a cause means learning the truth. Many people don’t want to know or examine or find the truth or look at themselves—hence the resistance to the process. That’s why I went through a screening process and had to turn down many clients. And as you mentioned, this greed, ego, wrong values comes from individuals. I don’t think you can heal organizations and systems until you heal individuals. That isn’t to say we don’t need systems, or rules, or laws or anything like that. Those need to be in place. I don’t think you can throw out every law and regulation out the window, like some people claim. It may be appropriate for some rules and regulations but not others. Meanwhile people need to be transformed and relationships transformed.

BW: We can come with all sorts of rules, laws, regulations to deal with various issues, but but unless you address the root cause of the problem, the problem isn’t going to go away.

JM: No, the problem is not going to go away. It will just crop up in another form.