Old agricultural metaphors are fascinating - sometimes we are using them even though the closest we ever get to harvesting a crop is squeezing a tomato in the store; the thought of even getting dirt under your nails may send shivers down your spine. One of the most common is the idea of bearing fruit.
The concept is easy to understand because there are only a rare few of us these days who can look at a fruit tree in the off season and have any idea of what it is, but I’ve plunked down some money and walked into a grove to pick fruit that magically appears in the fall (and eaten a few while filling the bucket - don’t judge, I know you’ve eaten grapes in a store). When I’m yanking that red ball of sweetness off the branch it’s easy to see that it’s an apple tree. I can tell what kind of tree it is by the fruit it bears.
In our places of work we sometimes come across fruit that has spoiled and rotted. If you are in IT or a process-oriented team you are used to the idea of root cause analysis - when something stops working it is usually the results, or fruit, of a deeper issue that needs to be discovered and fixed so that it doesn’t happen again. It’s not often easy, but if you don’t do the hard work of determining the underlying causes then it’s bound to happen again and again, causing more stress and pain in the long run. Sometimes a whole team may need to be utilized to dig in and figure it out.
While root cause analysis is a incredibly useful thing to do when something stinks with technology or processes, it is highly tempting to do the same thing with people.
With processes and systems, you can take them apart and look at the pieces individually, often no matter how complex they are. That’s not true for humans beings. We are far, far too complex in ways that the best of us do not understand, with a hint of wackiness in everyone. Looking for a root cause is rarely worth the effort, and can even lead you down a path that takes you away from looking at them as human and instead as something to figure out.
From Hal Runkel, a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist:
We've all been schooled to pursue the deep roots of a problem--searching for the underlying cause. In reality, it is often the fruits of a problem that spur its continuation. These are the secondary, unspoken gains we receive as a result of the problem's presence.
Every parent out there has done this - it is really hard not to. Your kid just did something inexplicable such as tell you a blatant lie that everyone in the room knows is a lie. Your first instinct, after wondering what you did to deserve this kind of treatment (and you probably do deserve it since you did it to your parents), is to say something like the following: “Why did you lie?” As if they are going to do a deep, serious introspection and come up with an answer that would astound Freud. And when they come up with something lame you send them to their room to go figure it out. You head out the door to go to work, where you lie to your coworkers at least 10 times. University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman says it’s hard to have a conversation without someone lying, often without even realizing it.
Why do we think a seven-year old is going to know why they did anything? Frankly, we don’t really know why we do most of what we do; being a grown-up means we are just better at justifying it afterwards.
This is true not only for our kids, our partners, our in-laws (definitely don’t know what they’re thinking), and our co-workers. You are not equipped to determine motivation. What you can do is identify the fruits.
Sometimes when we are struggling with a problem it is because we may be unknowingly enjoying the benefits, or the fruit, of the behaviors that are putting us in that situation. The same is true of coworkers that are spoiling the bunch.
Rather than looking at the person, or yourself, as “rotten” maybe we should be assessing the environment or culture to see if there is something that rewards the behaviors we want to avoid.
For example, maybe there is someone on your team that is constantly late for meetings. Rather than labeling that person as “spoiled” and trying to understand their motivation, deal with the fruits of the problem. Address the person to see if there is some environmental or scheduling issue. Is there some cost for the person if they have to arrive on time to the meetings in other areas, such as not getting other work done? Help them understand the cost of being late to meetings for the rest of the team.
Ask yourself: What are all the results of my current problem, even ones seemingly unrelated. Do I unknowingly want those results? If not me, is there someone who does? What are all the possible results if I solve my problem? What will be missed?